Category Archives: news

Your Thursday morning inspiration

“The only means of strengthening the intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing–to let the mind be a thoroughfare for thought.”  -John Keats, 1819

My husband and I don’t really understand the hullabaloo around the RNC and the DNC.  As he snarkily commented, “Are these the same people who enjoyed pep rallies in high school?”  I love that people are getting excited about something, especially when the world has been so dark as of late, when our problems seem so immense.

But to me, it’s mostly just rhetoric.  Is that maybe all it is?

Even when I listen to inspiring words from the likes of Cory Booker and Michelle Obama (and as a preacher love her line about “when they go low, we go high,” and Booker’s reprise of “we will rise”), I can’t help but think that they’re merely performing the words of another (exceptionally and with permission, of course).  I worry that if all America has at this point in time are great words written by great speech writers, we might just be papering over our problems and our misunderstandings of our differences with lofty lines and grand gestures, feeling so surprised when they return and rear their ugly heads.

Our country seems caught in this wild rhetoric of hyperbole that I’ve never been the least bit comfortable with.  If one candidate says that we’re making “America great again,” the other outwits him by saying “America is already great,” if another suggests we ostracize Muslims and foreigners, another purports to invite them to join us (which is not all that much better).  It becomes a war of words and all the important nuances, perhaps the real things that make America who she is and potentially really great, get lost and buried in the crossfire.

Our responses to all this are not much better: we either seem to rally around the least offensive rhetoric or cry cynicism because the politics is truly so off-putting.  But cynicism really is the height of laziness because it’s fully dependent, accusatory, and glib (and most definitely not an agent for change), and vapid enthusiasm isn’t much better, because it doesn’t teach us anything about who we really are, it doesn’t heal wounds, it doesn’t create solutions.

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Michelle Obama speaking before the DNC 2016.

So where’s the inspiration this morning?  Well, I think it begins with us.  

As I’ve been hearing all these great words these past few weeks, I’ve been thinking, let us not wait for someone to inspire us, America, because what we need is less of politics and more of real life.  Let us do the inspiring by telling our everyday stories to one another, by sharing our problems, our triumphs, our solutions.

A few nights ago I had to run out to Walmart to grab a few things.  I actually love going to Walmart because whatever your politics, it is one of the most diverse places around here.  I hate going to Walmart though because it always takes so damn long.  But I noticed something on that extra warm evening–people who didn’t look anything like each other, who don’t speak each other’s languages, and who come from very different cultural backgrounds, were going out of their way to be kind to one another.  The young black guy behind the counter, so deferential to the Spanish-speaking family in front of me, the woman with the headscarf behind me, and to me, the young white woman.  The lines were jammed up against the registers but people were patient; I watched a couple young black men let an Indian family with a full cart go in front of them in line.

I thought to myself, not bad, New Jersey, not bad.

This kind of stuff that we do everyday in America goes unnoticed but it needs to be celebrated.  It’s not going to make the papers, it’s not going to make the speeches, but it’s inspiring and it’s life well lived.  By sharing such a simple story, I don’t mean to paper over the real differences and the real problems in our country either–but I guess when I think in terms of inspiration, I’d rather find something concrete that I see in front of me, in my backyard, that’s real and right and true.  I’d rather take my cues from the diverse group of students in my classroom that cultivate meaningful but respectful conversation everyday as points of inspiration rather than the words of a few.  I’d rather think critically with folks in my congregation about how to build community rather than watch someone else pontificate about who or what America is or will be.

I guess my plea for inspiration this morning is for us to take heart and hold of the good things around us that often go unnoticed–to report them to somebody and to someone, and to talk together, to begin to share and pave real community solutions where rhetoric may fall short.  I’m not saying that we can’t watch the RNC or the DNC and we can’t have passion for the candidates that inspire us, but I guess I’m saying that I think, we the people, need to do the real work of inspiring.  

And if we look around, even in the most seemingly ordinary places, we just might find it.

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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?

 

Lament for a gun-spangled America

On Sunday morning, I preached a sermon on 2 Corinthians 4, in which I struggled to find a modern metaphor for clay jars, Paul’s metaphor for the wild inappropriateness of our weak, fragile broken bodies as vessels for the gospel.  

On Monday, July 4, 2016, America celebrated its independence day.

On Tuesday, two police officers fatally shot Alton B. Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

On Wednesday evening, a police officer fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

Last night, five police officers were killed by snipers during an otherwise peaceful protest held in downtown Dallas.

This morning, practically paralyzed by the events of this week, grief stricken and broken hearted, I wrote this lament to our gun-spangled America.

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Photo Credit.

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I woke up this morning, and like so many wondered naively, will things be different?  Will things be different on a morning where birds chirp, where it seems possible to be hopeful, the heavy, oppressive heat yet to descend upon us?

Who are you, this shadowy America, and what have you done with the free and the brave?

How heavy your burden of history and violence and oppression, how heavy the present fear and death you inflict upon black men and black women, America.

How heavy that fear descends upon law enforcement, for even their guns will not free them from this madness!

And it seems we have no choice–to put down our guns is surrender, but to leave them raised is death.  We have all become perpetrators.  We have all become victims.

And so I scoffed bitterly, I want no part in your gun-spangled America, in the weapons you wave that display not freedom or strength but cowardice and fear!

These guns, these guns are illusions, nay, allusions to protect, to intimidate the very fight out of war, yet with each gunshot we’ve slowly come to the realization that America is at war with itself.  That what seems unfathomable because of our modernity, our civilization, has come not in spite but because of it.  We fail to accept our common mortality, our common humanity, and so we wage war upon our brothers and sisters in a paradoxical desire to protect our own.

But we live with death at work within us (2 Cor 4:12), so painfully and palpably now, we are bearers of not only the body of the death of Jesus martyred by the state (2 Cor 4:10), but 566 people killed by the U.S. police in 201653 American officers killed in the line of duty in 2016, and now overall 7088 gun related deaths in the U.S. in 2016.  

Scripture tells us that we carry that death so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh (2 Cor 4:11), but with death among us and America’s shadows, I worry that the resurrection is only for another world.  We find hope in resurrection because it’s a respite from our self-inflicted madness; our world crowds out light and peace and resurrection–our gun-spangled America–and I want no part in that.

And yet, I must wake to this world, because my own blood-stained hands have helped form it.

I must be one to put down my gun–not just a literal gun–but my very real fears and prejudices and selfishness and insults and division that I had once thought might keep me safe.  I must be one to carry death inside, but to also live with defiance when life itself has been marred.  I must be one to show my face, to preach the kingdom of God in this inconvenient moment and in this wounded nation.  I must be one to cry out for the fragility and the brokenness of our human condition, but also the deep meaning in lives lost, to cleave to something beyond the madness–so that gun-spangled madness won’t be what life in America is all about.

Who are we, shadowy America, and what have we done with the free and the brave?

Who are we, both perpetrators and victims of madness?

Who are we, children of God?

 

 

Finding your discomfort

Yesterday as I drove to church I heard the news that a gunman had opened fire in a nightclub in Orlando; it was a beautiful, breezy morning here in New Jersey, and on our way into worship we joked that it was the kind of weather we might find in the Florida Keys.

The sermon this Sunday was on Genesis 12, the call of Abram, and my colleague invited us to see how Abram builds altars along his journey to an unknown land, and to stop and notice what God is doing and what God has done with our lives.  We made a list of the adjectives that come to mind when we think of our own church community, recognizing, as she said, that we were different last year and that we would be different a year from now.

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Camels and Cairo on the horizon.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But I couldn’t help being drawn, as she spoke, to a slightly different message.

As she remarked that Abram was near 75 years old when the Lord asked him to up and move to an unknown land, and that he didn’t know where he was going, I was struck, as I have been so many times before, by how being Christian does not have anything to do with being comfortable.  Flipping back through the pages of Genesis to the flood just a few chapters before or forward to the epic journey in the wilderness in Exodus, we find a God whose challenges far exceed his comforts.

What I find so powerful about this message is that while God is always instructing us to get up, to go, to go do something, or greet someone, or explore something, God does promise to go with us.  God often promises to go before us, but it’s pretty clear from scripture that we can’t experience the grace and the goodness of God just on our couches.

I think this message was so poignant to me, because I have been someone who has traveled to faraway lands many times in my life, and I’ve often associated my purpose or calling in ministry with that type of journey.  But for those of you who have been reading my blog, these past few years since we returned from China certainly smack of a more stationary season, and I’m not sure I realized until yesterday how important it is to find our wilderness even if we’re close to home.  In Abram’s story and the countless other narratives of transformation in the Bible, I see God reminding us that while some journeys take place closer to home, all journeys toward God involve some discomfort, some wilderness, and a lot of disruption.

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So my question to you (and my question to myself) this morning is where is God leading you, disrupting you, pushing you, and prodding you?  Where, like Abram, is your unknown land, the journey that will be long, involving pit stops and altars, and probably fear and regret?  But where will you go, not because you want to and not because it’s fitting, but because God is leading you there, and you want to be transformed?

When I turned on the radio after church, there was special programming from NPR about the shooting confirming that over 50 had died and now this is the worst shooting in our sordid national history.  On social media, my peers cried out for answers, mourned in solidarity, and wondered how things might ever change.  This morning, I’m rather certain that things won’t change swiftly, comfortably, or easily for any of us, but that real change, as it does in the Bible, will require uneasy, disruptive, totalizing transformation, that our country has clearly resisted since my childhood.

I pray desperately that we as people of faith may not just sit on our couches any longer but leap toward our zones of discomfort, following God and not our complacency, seeking disruptive love rather than cheap and easy respite–we can’t wall ourselves off from parts of our country or parts of our history that are dark.  We need to go toward them, scrutinize them, and even embrace them, in order to change.  

These were the words from a prayer in our bulletin this weekend:

 

Turn over the tables in our hearts, minds, and churches, and make room for your grace to dwell.  We pray in the name of the One who disrupts the world with love, Jesus the Christ.

Amen.

What God does

When there is violence and hunger and fear and suffering on the news and in our lives, it is easy and natural to question where God is and what God might be doing.  Many things in this world keep us in suspense, and God’s wisdom and mercy are often counted among them.  I continue to find my relationship with God challenging, stretching, and arduous.

But a few weeks ago as I sat in church and heard brothers and sisters lifting their voices around me in song and found it beautiful, moving, and humbling, it occurred to me that in our eagerness to fully understand, we often miss out on the everyday work that God does and is doing.

Scenes from the neighborhood.  A field of wildflowers.  My photo.
Scenes from the neighborhood. A woodsy meadow and a field of wildflowers. 

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Those ordinary voices were broken and imperfect, but God made them melodious and harmonic.  Similarly, the people in my life are scarred and wounded, but God uses them everyday to minister to me.  Nothing about being a parent is easy, but God grants me grace for the journey.

In fact, every morning we wake up with breath in our lungs, beats in our hearts, and thoughts in our heads are gifts from God, but we don’t always attribute those everyday, powerful miracles to our God.  I heard a song on the radio the other day that reminded me that God is already awaiting us to arrive at that future we’re so worried about.  It reminded me that we serve and worship a God whose very being–past, present, and future–is far beyond the confines of our thoughts and prayers.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking to calculate, plan, and understand.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with mourning the problems in this world, and seeking to effect change.  But I wonder if when we put our minds so feverishly to change what’s in front of us that we often falter because we fail to see what God is already doing and what God has already done.  We forget that life itself, with God, is the point of living.  We don’t get to embrace what God is already doing in our lives and learn from that wisdom, grace, and beauty.

So this morning if you can, alongside prayers for a fallen and broken world, give thanks for breath and for humanity, for beauty and for hands and feet, and for God’s presence in the everyday.  May we all feel it a bit stronger these days.

Amen.

Weekend Links

It’s been a fabulous weekend celebrating my husband’s 35th birthday and enjoying the company of lots of friends and the lovely spring weather in NJ.  In addition to a photo from one of those lovely walks with the babe, here are some great stories and posts around the internet for your enjoyment this weekend:

“The Five Lessons of Good Friday,” a great article to ponder during Eastertide: I love the nuanced points about suffering and the proclamation that suffering does not have the last word!  For my own reflections on how to live in light of Easter, see last year’s post, “Holy everything.”

On the subject of men, women, and the workplace, “The Confidence Gap,” was a lengthy, but good read about what may be holding women back.

“Saving Minds Along with Souls,” the latest installment from Anthropologist of Religion, Tanya Luhrmann, provides a great challenge to the church to love, include, and care for the mentally ill.  For other posts on Luhrmann’s work, see  “What it means to be a child of God” and “God behind the scenes.”

“China On Track to Become the World’s Largest Christian Country by 2025, Experts Say,” …and in my non-expert opinion, it may be even sooner.  For more posts on Christianity in China on this blog, see “Chinese churches” and “Church Renewal from Below.”

FInally, another gem to ponder this week from Zen Habits, “The Reality of This Moment.”

What if we lived in this moment rather than the fantasy of our worries and fears about the future? 

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Have a wonderful weekend! 

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.

 

 

An invitation to breathe deeper

Apparently Huffington Post has dubbed 2014 the “year of mindful living,” and TIME magazine alleges there’s a “mindful revolution” in the wings.**

There’s been all sorts of talk about the value of the creative pause, the importance of sacred space (I swear I’ve linked to this article before, but it’s still great), and the benefits of meditation.  

And, predictably, especially given the title of this blog and its content, I couldn’t agree more! 

The snowy Princeton campus.  Photo by Serena Stein.
The snowy Princeton campus. Photo by Serena Stein.

But I have to admit that I don’t always practice what I preach.  

While I’ve been wildly productive when it comes to the dissertation and ticking things off the baby-prep list, I’ve been flittering away downtime with a host of media distractions.

This isn’t the end of the world, of course.  Social media can be wonderfully connective, and much-needed breaks from the rigor of our working lives with tv, youtube, etc. are understandable.  But when I think about what I really want to get out of life, I realize how much I don’t want to distract myself from what God’s doing.  Rather than check out, I want to check in.  And rather than emptying my mind, I want to be filled with the mind of God.

Through the distractions, I hear God’s invitation to breathe a little deeper.  And this morning as my dear friend and I sat basking in the word of God, simply breathing together, we felt anew how good it is to simply be in the presence of God.  I don’t love the phrase, “carving out space for God,” because I think it’s misleading to suggest that we’re the ones who should be doing the carving.

And yet, I think there’s something to be said for embracing the silence that God grants.  There’s something to be said for choosing not to be distracted.  And there’s certainly something truthful about remembering that the invitation to the spiritual life is just that, an invitation, which we can either accept, despite all its inconveniences, challenges, and grace, or decline for the meagerness of our own devices.

Pretty Princeton in the glow of snow.  Photo by Serena Stein.
Pretty Princeton in the glow of snow. Photo by Serena Stein.

How can you embrace the silence, the invitation from God in your life to breathe a little deeper today, tomorrow, and this year?

**Check out The Huffington Post’s critique of the TIME article here.

“A church which is bruised and hurting”

Above the altar in a church in Yunnan, China.  The characters read, "Emmanuel."  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Above the altar in a church in Yunnan, China. The characters read, “Emmanuel.” Photo by Evan Schneider.

I posted this quote to Facebook the other day and it seemed to resonate with a lot of people, so I wanted to share it on the blog.  Whatever you think of the new pope, these words about the papal mission really struck a chord:

Pope Francis on the papal mission: 

“I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security … More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat.’”

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.