Category Archives: theology

Why Christian calls for unity in the wake of Charlottesville may be both racist and theologically unsound

Whether it was the clergy in full vestments, arms linked facing down gun-wielding white supremacists or the torch-bearers chanting anti-semitic threats, it is abundantly clear that theology is not neutral in 21st century America.  And yet, in the wake of Charlottesville, many Christians have responded with opaque calls to unity and appeals to people of faith to “tear down the racial and cultural barriers that divide us.”

At first I thought such statements offended me merely as a cultural anthropologist.

You see, while it is powerful and poignant to condemn discrimination and racism, it seems a problematically ethnocentric, if not a positively white-privileged perspective to blatantly condemn “the racial and cultural barriers that divide us.”

Whose culture, whose race is dividing us?  Perhaps it seems like mere semantics, but when Christians posit that culture and race are problems that breed division, that they are the very evils that need to be stamped out, we reveal that our calls to unity run dangerously close to the rhetoric of those who rallied in Charlottesville last weekend (even if that was not the intent).

Even though race is a social construct, we do see color and it has socially and politically relevant power and effects that especially white Americans must grapple with rather than ignore.  The creative cultures that have emerged from communities of struggle and resistance among people of color in America are not barriers that divide us but rich resources to teach us about what America can and should become.

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Not only do we have to choose our words carefully from an anthropological point of view, but we have to do so because the ministry and the integrity of Jesus Christ is at stake here.  Countless Christians have boldly quoted Galatians 3:28 in the face of racial division: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.”  But Paul uses this passage to argue that all are liberated from the law and therefore, we do not need to become like one another to be in Christ and receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit; rather, in Christ, we can live as one with those who are radically different from us.

Indeed, we often forget that Jesus came into a culturally pluralistic world and honored the cultural practices in communities and peoples who were different from him, while preaching a gospel that sought to unify.  There are certainly passages in the Bible that also justify slavery, genocide, and division, but when we look at the whole of God’s ministry arose history and in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, I believe we do see that redemptive reconciliation does not damn culture, difference, and the sacredness of varied human lives, but the ways in which we human beings often instrumentalize these differences as division.

There’s nothing theologically unsound about unity, but unity that obliterates, objectifies, and undermines difference falls short of the vision God has for the fullness of humanity in Jesus Christ.  Unity that maintains inequitable power structures is false and faithless.  And unity that fails to listen and value the struggles of people of color in America is not only anthropologically unsound but theologically dismissive.

If you’re a Christian, especially a white Christian like me, seeking healing, reconciliation, and unity, I recommend you read the PCUSA’s statement on “Facing Racism,” adopted in 1999 by the General Assembly as a policy document to guide the pursuit of racial justice.  Or read this exegetical lecture on Acts, where Princeton Seminary Professor Eric Baretto powerfully describes how differences are gifts from God.  You might check out my post on “Embracing Difference as a Spiritual Discipline” and consider the challenge in a theology where we recognize and affirm that although we belong to God, God does not belong to us.  And check out Christina Cleveland’s “Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves.”

Of course, there’s so much more to read and do.  But at the very least, let’s check ourselves from parading around platitudes about unity at the expense of diversity, especially in the name of Christ.  Christians have got to stand for more than that.  We owe it to one another and especially to Jesus.

 

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Why they can’t take our joy

A few weeks ago a former student emailed to update me on her summer.  “How’ve you been?”  she asked spiritedly.  “I’ve spent the summer distracted by healthcare,” was the confessional, somber, and bitter beginning of my reply.

Indeed, in the last few months, alongside the very real threat of losing the ACA, Lucia’s Medicaid benefits, and healthcare for millions of Americans, there’s also been the more subtle feeling of frustration that this fight has also taken its toll on my academic and pastoral passions, reduced me to someone who wasn’t producing or creating so much as maintaining vigilance, waiting on others’ words and others’ actions–merely responding.

And I hate being in response mode.

I, like so many Americans, truly despise the discipline of waiting on anybody or anything–I’m even kind of lousy at waiting on God.

When there’ve been great gushes of joy as there are in everyday life alongside Lucia, I felt resentful that they still felt tinged by a foreboding, ominous fear.  How can you mess around with joy when you feel such aching fear and trembling, I’d cringe.  And then I’d smart because I’d be angry that 13 men in a private room were even threatening to take my joy from me.  How dare they do that?

This summer has been filled with ups and downs, victory and solace punctuated by deep uncertainty and angst—so many bills, so many promises, a little hope, very little peace.  So even the things that normally come naturally to me–forging ahead with bravery and decision–have been called into question, fretted and flummoxed by the helplessness and fatigue I’ve felt.  I’ve found that it’s easy to be brave when it’s just you, but it’s much harder with someone else depending on you.  Or when you’re made to feel that bravery is foolish or may count for little in the end.

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Speaking at the RunRAllWomen Rally on Friday night.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But what has made all the difference in the last few weeks, through the wise spiritual counsel of trusted friends, is to discover that bravery is possible even in the face of tremendous fear and uncertainty, because joy is resilient, defiant, and knows no boundaries.  This is the message I shared last night about our life with Lucia at a rally for equitable healthcare–that joy may be an unlikely home for advocacy but it’s effective because it’s genuine and human and resounding.  That being human means sharing vulnerability and fragility but it can also mean finding joy in the most unlikely of circumstances and working together for change.

In these last couple of weeks, even before the Republicans voted against the repeal of the ACA, even before so many of you stood up for the needs of those on Medicaid (THANK YOU!!!), I realized that even if they take away Lucia’s healthcare and they deem her life of little value, our family will still have our joy in each other and in God, and we will rise in the face of all of it.  We will go on and create and make beauty from ashes because that’s what we do, and nobody can take that transformative joy that we’ve found in Lucia, one another, and in God away from us.  It doesn’t make any of it okay, of course–the assault on the healthcare of the most vulnerable in this country.  It almost makes it worse that in a world filled with real life challenges of health and life and death for kids like Lucia, it could be something manmade that’s the death of them.  But it reminds me that I’m not waiting on our government’s bills or decrees or approval to live my life–I never was.  Instead, I’m happily and graciously bound to a family and to a God and to people who love us and whose love is real and here and stable.

Of course, the one problem is that however lovely these words, they are tinged with privilege.  Many people won’t be able to lean on family or something as seemingly ethereal like creativity, but practically translated as amazing university employment.  People will be so hurt and scarred by revoking healthcare and Medicaid and those the most hurt won’t be me or my family but those whose dignity has not just recently come under assault but rather has long been denied by the classist, sexist, ableist, racist undertones of America’s unrelenting “greatness.”

But I do think it’s something–it’s certainly not nothing–to feel joy amidst fear and live to tell about it.  Indeed, this is what I find defying and powerful about so many saints of the church, champions for justice, and seemingly ordinary people who have gone before me.  Please, please don’t hear me wrong.  I’m not giving up, but rather recalibrating our fight.  I’m suggesting that we bravely, boldly live our joy-soaked lives even, perhaps especially in the face of such an assault.  Taking pleasure and joy in our humble lives becomes an act of resistance in itself, a luxury that many struggle to find.

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Our family celebrating at my sister’s installation service.  

And this is precisely why we must not measure ourselves by human standards because we see human standards faltering in our midst everyday.  I’m reminded these days that they can’t take our joy because our lives never belonged to them or even to us but to God.  And same thing with that joy.  It’s roots are deeper, wider, grander than many of these legislators have ever encountered.  May they feel its fury, its vibrance, its resilience and may they be led beyond fear, as I have, to seek justice.

 

Thanks again.

We, like so many other parents across the globe, took our almost three year old to her first political protest on Saturday.  And like so many, it was not necessarily the words of the speakers or the size of the protest that mattered so much, but the experience of standing alongside others in that damp, dreary weather and feeling the light and the warmth of knowing we’re not alone in the fight for the rights and dignity of all people in this country.

But when another pastor came up with his family to tell us that he had first started to take his now teenage son to protests when he was about Lucia’s age I have to admit that I was a little dismissive.  Lucia would probably not be conscious of this protest anymore than ones she might attend in the future–in other words, I was emphatically aware of the cavernous difference between his able-bodied son and my disabled daughter, of his typical family and my not so typical one.  Minutes later an elderly woman wanted to present Lucia was the paper crane she’d been fashioning while she stood beside us.

 

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Photo credit.

“Kids must be so bored at these things,” she whispered.  “Perhaps she’d like something to play with.”  

“Oh, well she can’t really use her arms,” I replied dryly.  

“Well, can she see?” she persisted.  

“No, not really,” I replied again, rather impatiently.  

“But she can feel,” I finally acquiesced, flapping the tiny wings of the little bird against Lucia’s cheek to the woman’s contentment.

Even then, despite this woman’s resolute patience, I felt a pang of ambivalence.  I perceived her persistence to be a reflection of her own desire to give her gift, whether or not it might be appropriate to give or whether Lucia could really receive of it.  Despite the myriad of people who encircled us to tell us that they liked our “#disabled lives matter” sign and smile at our toddler with special needs, I realized how was possible it was to feel disconnected to the 7500 people with which we stood.

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Protesting at the Trenton Women’s March.  My photo.

Nonetheless, not only the Trenton march, but the hundreds across the globe, especially the march on Washington, were an enormous success, and on Sunday as we stood in the church hallway, the other pastor and I chatted excitedly about what it feels like to be part of history.  I remarked on how deeply moved I was by all the supportive responses to the piece I published on Thursday on this blog and Friday in the Huffington Post and how emotional it was when friends texted me photos of themselves marching in name for our daughter, Lucia, and disabled people across the country.  But then again, almost before the words were out of my mouth, I realized I didn’t like how they sounded: I realized I was being dismissive again.  I said something like how loved we felt, how Lucia had been so happy all day, but of course, she didn’t understand much of what really was going on, although it still meant something to us, to her parents.

“Oh, I don’t know,” my colleague replied graciously and carefully with something like,  “I think love is love.  I’m not sure we really know how people love, how it works, or how they receive it, but I think we can feel it.  I think everyone can feel it.”  

I swallowed, a big lump rising in my throat, and I thought about the pastor and his kids and the woman with the paper crane.  I thought about the 7500 people marching in Trenton and millions of others across the globe.  I thought about the words I’d written last week, and I realized that in the midst of calling for Lucia’s rights and for real love for her, I, too, have the ability to silence her.

It’s not up to me to decide what’s love or whether or how Lucia receives it.  I realize that as much as I understand the reality of my daughter’s differences, I am not in a position to fathom what love really feels like to her, how she receives it, and how she experiences it.  Those are my own limitations, and it’s not for me to constantly assert her differences when other people see common ground, or to presume that there’s a right or a wrong way to love her.  I realize that perfect love isn’t about the most appropriate gift or words or gesture, but it’s about the desire to engage, to stand with, and to keep trying, even when the caverns seem massive and deep.

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Amy Gabriel of marches in South Jersey.  Photo by Dave Hernandez (Burlington County Times).

So with a humble heart and a contrite spirit, I realize just how tremendous and miraculous your outpouring of support has been, how deeply thankful I am to all of you not only because you’re fighting the good fight, you’ve got my girl’s back, and you’re doing everything you can to be a voice for justice, but because you remind me and are teaching me everyday about what love really means.  You’re teaching me what it really means to let go and let Lucia love and be loved by you.  And it’s not necessarily how I would have imagined it.

But thank God for that.

Thank God that despite our limitations, God somehow uses people to enable love to break through and remind us that God is love–that perfect love looks like undeniable kinship between so seemingly different families, paper cranes, spirited marches, letters to Congress, Lucia’s happiness, and so much in between.  

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Our happy smiles on Saturday.  My photo.

Love is love and God is love and that’s why, despite our best (and flawed) human efforts, we’re never really alone.

—–

P.s. The Betsy DeVos vote has been postponed until Jan. 31 so that gives you a week to call your Senator!  See my previous post post-script (hehe) on why DeVos is bad on disability rights and how to call.

P.p.s. The Jeff Sessions vote could be as early as tomorrow!  Call your Senator now to oppose and read this article to see why he’s bad for disability rights, too.

P.p.p.s. Letter writing is effective!  Learn how here and please write to your Congress-people (you have one rep and three senators) asking them to protect state and federal Medicaid for families with disabilities!

Joy amidst despair

It’s been a few weeks since we lit the Advent candle of joy and here we stand, poised to celebrate another Christmas Eve.  And yet, the world is dark–ravaged by war, injustice, insecurity, and violence.  And so perhaps you do not feel it.  At first, I did not feel it.  At first I was wont to ask, where, how can I find joy this season?

But we do not find joy.

We do not carve joy, just as we do not carve prayer, peace, patience, or goodness of our own devices.  We wait, as we have for at least the last twenty-seven or days, if not much, much, much longer.  We wait on God for joy.

As we studied the words of Isaiah’s prophecies these past weeks, we were met with a world full of judgment, impending doom, violence, and war.  And yet, God, through the words of Isaiah, called the people not to ally with foreign forces but to wait upon God for Emmanuel.  Hundreds and hundreds of years later, the terms of the census, the reign of Herod, and the world Jesus was born into were inhospitable to him and to his family.  His parents struggled to stay together in a culture that shunned their out-of-wedlock pregnancy; and when they made the pilgrimage toward Bethlehem, they probably did so with not joy but great inconvenience, with great fear and awe and worry.

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Hold onto joy.

The Christmas joy we want and we expect, that burst of joy from the heavens, joyous singing, harmony, and peace is not how I know God to have made joy biblically or in my own life.  Rather, God in God’s almighty wisdom seems quite wont and capable to carve joy from the most unlikely of circumstances, to bring joy when despair is the currency of the day.  Perhaps this, rather than trumpets and fanfare and glee, is what the birth of Jesus is really about–about God’s will to bring light to a dark world when it seems so bleak, so impossible, so, so, so difficult?

Look back on your own life and think about the moments were joy peeked inexplicably, unexpectedly, impossibly through the veil of sadness, despair, and fear.  Think about the breath and the beauty of light in a world or a room filled with darkness.  And care and coddle and nurture that kind of joy this season.  Welcome and look for and do not dismiss that kind of radical joy that finds the world and finds us in the midst of despair.  In fact, strive to remind the world that that kind of joy is not only possible but present, and let us live with this joy not only one day, on Christmas, but each day, even if the world remains dark.

 

When grief is unpalatable

We’ve spent the last few weeks caring for our daughter who just had surgery.  She was in a fog for about three days from the anesthesia and all the pain killers, and though she had no major complications, we felt like we lost her for five days or so to that medicine-induced haze and the severe pain she experienced intermittently.  Leaving home last weekend and this past Monday to head to work was particularly difficult because she wasn’t fully healed (she still isn’t), and she certainly wasn’t yet herself.

And when people asked well meaning questions I felt most qualified to answer them from my experience–my husband and I were struggling so much with seeing her usual bubbly self all comatose and uncomfortable.  Caring for someone who is in pain is painful.  Despite the seeming wisdom of it, then, when people tried to move past the pain–“but the surgery was successful, right?”  “But she’ll feel better soon,” or even, “Well, of course she’s in pain…”–it made me feel very misunderstood.  It felt like other people were trying to look past the real pain and grief of my experience because it wasn’t very palatable, convenient, or acceptable.  They wanted to resolve my grief for me, but when I came home and found Lucia limp in my husband’s arms or screaming in pain, I felt so alone.

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Lucia and her father cuddling on a Sunday afternoon.  My photo.

Precisely because I was grappling so ungracefully with my own grief these past few weeks, I immediately recognized something similar in my students’ tear-stained faces, slumped shoulders, and speechless, flustering sighs the Wednesday morning after the election.  Truth be told, given my own personal grief, I didn’t quite feel like beholding the grief of another.  But something nudged me that a void remains a void (or becomes even worse) unless a leader, even a trepidatious and imperfect one, steps into it.  And so, armed with some words of wisdom, some humility (after all, I knew that some students’ grief would be juxtaposed with other students’ celebration), and a deep conviction, I showed up to class that morning.

I showed up and told them I wasn’t really equipped to moderate their discussion but felt that we needed to acknowledge what happened, our varied feelings, but mostly that for the 15-20 minutes as a class we would covenant to make our space safe for all people, and to be respectful to especially those who were grieving.  Many students cried, other students aired frustrations, some students tried to move forward.  Very gently I nudged them back toward their grief.  When one student tried to tell others they were overreacting, I did the same.

I tried to carve out a space where grief was acceptable and welcome, recalling how alone I’d felt just that past weekend when my grief had been too much for others to bear.  It was only 20 minutes.  My students have a paper due this weekend. Life goes on.

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But I wonder sometimes what our country might have been this past week if we could have bore one another’s grief a bit more consciously and transparently and reverently  over these past 18 months leading put to the election.  It seems so much anger, righteousness, and denial in both campaigns speak to distinct places and manifestations of grief in more palatable clothes.  It’s always more acceptable in America to express anger as opposed to weakness, righteousness over fear, blame rather than humility.  But it feels decidedly too little too late when so many in this country were already hurting, but we mistook their grief for the ugly face-value emotions they presented.

Perhaps my greatest comfort in these trying personal and corporate experiences of grief is knowing that even when we fail, God’s empathy is deep enough for us all.  When we think we’re alone in our grief, we never really are.  But God is also not “on our side” as we in America are always tempted to think; God does not rejoice in our clanging campaigns of strength and righteousness but in our genuine holy moments of listening to one another.

In the dramatic days after the election, despite our penchant for progress, there have been holy moments of grief.  They are moments we want to move past, but what if they’re just the beginning?  What if they are moments that truly matter?  I learned this past week that even when we are weak, God can make us strong.  We can make space for those who are grieving to be heard, and while it may seem a simple step, it’s a vital one to healing.

We cannot heal if we do not break apart.  We cannot lead if we assume God is looking for wholeness and greatness and power.  Perhaps God can use us just as we are.  Perhaps our lament is pleasing to God’s ears, too.

 

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.

 

 

What if it’s all ministry?

As I drove into work the other morning listening to a podcast, a woman on the other end proclaimed that time is in some sense the great equalizer–no matter who you are, from the president of a country to a mother of twelve, you only get 24 hours–you can’t stretch it or exceed it or reform it.

Oh, but you can desperately and fruitlessly try…

As I’ve been finding myself at some of my limits in terms of time and energy and motivation these days, I’ve done the one thing I’ve urged my students not to do: I’ve turned inward, convinced that I’m not living up to expectations.

But whose expectations? I’ve begun to wonder.

I have realized these past few days (with some help from my spiritual director) that my own expectations have crowded out my good work as I hold a hierarchy of ministry in my mind.  As someone who has aspired to be a missionary and who has lived in abandoned bars and alongside drug addicts in Puerto Rico, sought to live in solidarity with migrants in Mexico, and slept on the floor of Chinese orphanages, I’ve always had this unspoken belief that the more uncomfortable you are, the more meaningful the work is that you’re doing.

And that’s honestly worked okay for me, because I have a high tolerance for discomfort.  I suppose I consider it one of my spiritual gifts, that instead of being repelled from what’s different, I’m drawn into cross-cultural conversation and challenges and dissonance.  But my life is not the hearty picture of discomfort that I once imagined it to be these days.  Despite those limited 24 hours, I feel the need to do more, to give, to reach out, and I struggle with the limits I experience and my finitude.

But I’m learning a couple of important things little by little.

I’m learning, for one, that one person’s discomfort looks quite different than another’s.  And I’m realizing that the ministry that God has for me may look different than what I imagined for myself.  I’m realizing that the wide breath of ministry God has put before me–ministry with my daughter with disabilities, ministry with my students, ministry with my congregants, maybe even ministry through my blog–may have gone unrecognized, especially to me.

You see, I’ve always taken that verse in the Bible very literally about selling all your stuff and following Jesus and felt pretty crappy that I still have stuff.  And part of that is really good, I think, because what I find so challenging and compelling about that verse is the reminder that aren’t people that are made for the things of this world.

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Rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27) imagery.  Photo credit.

 

But what if it’s all ministry?  

I always tell my students and my colleagues that I want to imagine a world of abundance, a world in which everyone can succeed and thrive, because I really believe God to be a God of abundance.  But ministry…the world as chocked full of ministry, relative only to us, but wholly instituted and appreciated by God?

Well, that thought, that reality, is blowing my mind.

When I realize that I can’t sell all my stuff because my daughter needs feeding tubes to live and standers to make sure her hips don’t come out of socket and a pump to keep her alive overnight and seizure medication, it’s rather black and white and shortsighted and unfaithful to assume that I can’t be faithful to God because of all of that.  Those confines fail to reflect the love that God has grown in me for this child with disabilities, the theology that God has granted me to call Lucia good and perfect and really believe it, and the ease that I have and have always felt with people with disabilities.

That must be ministry, too.

As I looked around my life yesterday afternoon–as I walked back from ice cream with the first generation  and low-income college students with whom I’ve spent the past seven weeks, and with whom I’d grown so thoroughly–I realized some people might call that classroom one of real discomfort.  As I reflected on our little church that is a bit messy and inhabited by very varied abilities and ages and quite a few folks with special needs, I realized that some people might find that kind of worship truly arduous.  And as I thought about my writing–writing that works to connect up all these disparate avenues, foster families and China and faith and academia and caring for a child with disabilities–I realized that I’m still one messy, drawn-into discomfort individual, but I simply don’t experience it that way.

I realized that even as I’ve been fighting for a ministry that’s meaningful, God has been equipping me in the one that’s here.  I wondered in that moment if the choices I’ve made for my life aren’t so much right or wrong as tied into this purpose that may flaunt my expectations but dig deeply into the gifts God has instilled within me.  And I wondered if perhaps the greatest discomfort I’m feeling about the challenge of being here and doing all of this isn’t the very discomfort that God has for me to grow within in this season.

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God’s majesty in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

As I walked back and the wind rustled through the trees, I thought I heard a whisper, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

And for the first time in a very long time, I think I started to believe it.

Learning to hope again

“For in hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”  –Romans 8:24-25

A few months ago I began prepping a sermon on Romans 8, focusing on the two verses that come after these ones.  In fact, the part that comes next, about how “when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26), is one of my favorite passages in the Bible.  I love silent prayer and contemplation, and so I began scribbling down all sorts of ideas as I was brainstorming to preach.  I don’t even remember what I wrote down at the time, but one of the ideas was something like, “God dares us to hope again after loss, pain, and fear.”

I put my notebook away, and I went onto write the sermon a day or so later, preach it, and presumably move on.

But still, that message about hope was calling me.  

In fact, months later, I’m still thinking about it.  What that passage and my reflections on hope began to reveal to me is that faithfulness in this season of life, especially with Lucia, has often involved letting go of our expectations in order to love her as she is and celebrate her life.  This has been such a good and Godly way of learning to love, and especially when we’ve often stood in the balance of not knowing when the next crisis will strike or when we may need to let go, it’s been a powerful and fruitful way to live.

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Holding Lucia on her first birthday.  Photo by Andrew Nurkin.

But I also realize now that as we’d let go of expectations and fully embraced the uncertainty of our lives together, we’d not been particularly welcome or wont to hope.

Indeed, a few months ago, another parent said something casual to me like, “I’m just so looking forward to when she can do X…”  Yet another chirped, “Don’t you just look forward to each stage?”  The statements were remarkable because I realized, not mournfully or proudly, but simply and practically, that I certainly didn’t have the same hopes for Lucia.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t have hopes.

Something has shifted over the past few months for me.  Perhaps it’s because Lucia’s joy–her smiles, her giggles, are so contagious that we can’t help but want for more.  Perhaps it is because we’ve begun to realize that there’s a certain faithfulness (where perhaps we once thought it mere naiveté or denial) to believing and looking forward and wanting more for your child even when the future (gosh, everyone’s future!) is always uncertain.  “Who hopes for what is seen?” Paul asks, and it dawns on me that all hope is outrageous and audacious and almost senseless.  It dawns on me that true hope, hope despite fear, loss, and pain, is the most outrageous of them all, but deeply, wildly, and decidedly faithful.

What’s striking to me in this season is that even as Lucia’s daily health challenges continue, I think God is inviting us to dream a bit, to hope a lot, to envision a great and glorious and good life, even if it’s completely uncertain, for our daughter with special needs.

This is a huge shift for me…and it’s a little scary.  

And it’s not the sermon I preached that Sunday.  In fact, to this day, I don’t know how God did that–helped me write a sermon for others even as God prepared a sermon just for me.  And I am wary, as I always am, too pensive and critical, because hope for many often takes the shape of bi-ped hubris, therapeutic progress, or medical cures for Lucia, and I feel distinctly called to inhabit this tension of living and loving her now, and yet loving and hoping for her tomorrow, too.

So I find hope in the home we are making for Lucia, in the thought of her making friends at school someday, touching so many lives as she does ours everyday, teaching others, reaching out for babies and friends and strangers, and having many more swims and smiles and heroic turns of her head toward the things and the people that she wants and cares for!  These are my small, perhaps tentative, but genuine, prayerful, and faithful hopes for my daughter.

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Our little light looking for the light on a recent walk around the neighborhood.  My photo.

We will always savor the present, but we find new hope in the future with God’s help.

 

 

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.