There have been all these memes and review about the rottenness of 2018: it’s very clear many of us are ready to say good riddance. It was not a banner year for our family either–Lucia had one surgery and two unplanned hospitalizations and both of those came during busy semesters. But, she and we also had one of the best summers of our lives! She was healthy and happy and we went on two vacations with friends and family.
When I look over this year, the lectures I got to give, the conference I got to plan, the articles I published and submitted, the major grants I’ve won, and the mentoring and ministry and preaching I’ve done, it means that much more that it didn’t happen in seasons where things were easy or seamless, and yet there is so much to treasure and cherish. Perhaps especially when things aren’t perfect, it really helps to look back. We rarely learn from triumphs and successes. We tend to just keep forging ahead. But disappointments, mistakes, and challenges are the sites where growth can take seed if we’re willing to own up to them.
In that spirit, I’m honored to share some of what I’ve learned with you in this year, and I invite you to do the same. What end of the year rituals do you have? What hopes do you have for 2019?
If we were having coffee, I would tell you how glorious May has been with its graduations (beginnings wrapped up as endings), breezes and flowers, and yes, even rain! The other morning when I saw birds whizzing around with big, fat worms in their beaks I realized how happy they were about the rain and it made it decidedly more tolerable!
When I began this year teaching in my new position at the seminary, I had braced for the challenge, the uphill newness of it all, but I never could have imagined the pride that has come at getting to know these students and having a small impact on their lives and ministry. This has been such a joy and yet, May has also brought necessary rest that I didn’t even know I needed. All of a sudden, the world seems lighter, more affable, with more space in it for creativity, thought, opening, and even play.
Lucia is thriving, too. She’s on a new formula that she’s tolerating so much better than in February or March. We’re steadily increasing her intake and speed, hoping she will be able to get more nutrition. We’re thankful for this respite, yet we know that nothing is forever or for certain. What we’re eternally grateful for is her sunny disposition through it all–in an overnight minor procedure last week, her smiles and giggles were so lovely to behold!
May is kind of the gateway to summer, so there’s also the fun now of expecting things. I put together my summer goals, which are quite simply fieldwork and revising my book on China, but I broke them down a bit on the whiteboard in my office. I realize that this time of year is so rejuvenating for me because it’s all aglow with ambition and possibility! Now if I can only realize these goals and maintain this steady pace of work and play throughout the summer.
On Friday, my husband and I take an overnight trip to New York City to celebrate ten years of marriage. We’re planning on dinner at the same French bistro I surprised him with last year. In truth, we’re forever trying to recreate our idyllic five year anniversary trip to Paris, which I’m totally okay with. I have the fondest memories from that trip and from ten years of marriage, with so many travels, our little girl, and a bright future ahead!
For those of you missing the China posts, I miss China, too! I wrote a poem about it:
It is a spring morning in central Jersey.
And yet, when I emerge from my car in the parking garage, construction whirling in the distance, I am distinctly reminded whereby the crispness of this air, the particular squeakiness of these birds, and the unmistakable mix of blacktop and freshness of the same season in a city in South China.
Said city holds no particular place in the Chinese imaginary when it comes to urban notables; in fact, it conjures adjectives like “backwards” and “primitive” from the mouths of cabbies across China. But five years removed from my life there and cobbled sidewalks encased from endless traffic by massive palm fronds, I wonder if quaint is an adjective that one can put toward a city of seven million for which I am undeniably, yet foolishly homesick.
I recall how dodging the passersby dotting the sidewalk, I would sprint on a morning such as this, down to South Lake, and feel it my quiet oasis. In China, I learned the comfort of never being alone.
Despite the traffic that roared across the highway carving the lake in two and the never desolate state of the footbridge, pretending to climb but nay drudge up it in the dank humidity was my respite, my triumph.
Alongside the elderly people swatting their arms and strolling the banks or the young men in track suits with more ambition than athleticism, I felt deliciously inconspicuous, enfolded in the lush, yet urban landscape.
When I long for China, I like to think it’s not merely as a vagrant or a tourist but as an adherent and an old friend.
You see in China, I learned the distinct pleasure of anonymity alongside the crowded comfort of never being alone. There’s something pleasurable in recollecting that those runs along South Lake were never quite my own but belong dutifully and contentedly to the city they call Nanning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And this week (and probably all weeks), I’ve been teaching my students about the power of words–especially the ways in which words are coded with hidden cultural meanings, with gender, class, and race. There is always more than meets the eye, metaphor dripping and resonating with import, value and privilege connoted in simple turns of phrase.
What’s funny to me about coddiwomple is that it doesn’t sound the least bit purposeful; it sounds more the stuff of vague wanderings, trodding, trudging, even. For me it comes too close to the catawampus or the cattywampus, the awkward, askew positioning that some prefer to catty-cornered.
Over the past few days, we’ve discovered that things are a bit cattywampus in a 200+ year old house. Stairs, floors, windows, closets, joints, gutters–give it 200 years and everything is a bit askant, askew, and disheveled.
But that purpose is still unfolding, amidst boxes and all that is askew, and I’m often impatient to discern the future. What I’m recognizing and perhaps disappointed by is that although we seem to be home finally, we’re still traveling, always traveling, making our way though the way now be paved with local negotiations, leaky faucets, and neighborhoods.
When it comes to words, coddiwomple might be a nice mantra, a beginning, rather than end point, in order that I don’t lose sight that purpose, in so many ways in my own life and probably yours, is also still unfolding. What I’m won’t to do in moments like these, is harvest the simple purposes in the everyday–in the fact that this area is crawling with amazing butterflies, in the serene walks atop the cemetery, in the union of struggle and working together that has to happen but also can and does happen when we meet challenges with patience.
Maybe it’s possible to live purposefully even when you’re a bit disheveled, or at least I’d like to think so. I’d like to be a bit coddiwomple in a world that is often askew. I’d like to glean purpose, like a forager, a harvester, a woman who doesn’t let a little rains or floods or follies deter her…
If we were having coffee this week, I’d let you in on a few things…
I’d tell you that it’s already been a week packed with doctors visits and hospital tests like usual, but something has shifted. It shifted when I realized that despite checking “no” to all the tasks listed on Lucia’s 24-month questionnaire, I also got to check “no” to the question, “does anything about your child worry you?” In the midst of moments where I could have been discouraged, I counted myself so blessed, because of the much needed perspective our daughter with special needs brings to our lives and my faith.
I’d also let you in on how incredibly thrilling it was to find an email in my inbox this morning entitled, “你好 from China” from a former student who with her broad interests in Native American culture, architecture, and history, I never thought would quite end up there! She wrote,
“Also Professor Raffety, China is wonderful. Granted there are many moments of ‘ahh, what am I doing’ but those are minimal in comparison to my many moments of ‘ahh, so much goodness.’ My co-workers, new friends, are brimming with patience, generosity and a eagerness to converse and teach me. I’m sure you have experienced many of these same moments. And of course, the food is new, but oh so flavorful.
I hope all is well with you and your family, your faith and teaching.”
I’m tickled not just because she’s having this encounter with China that I once had that was so powerful and earth-shattering and meaningful but because there’s this subtle affirmation of my call that I also read in her generous words–some mutual recognition of something more than just teacher and student, something more like our vocational and spiritual lives intermingling for something greater. She had me musing this morning, during a season when I’ve been lacking a bit of pedagogical inspiration, “See this is why I can’t not teach!”
And finally, I’d tell you that I really should be writing my sermon instead of this blog post, but that I think it can all pretty much be summed up in these words from Glennon Doyle Melton that speak to the curious balance of conviction and humility that it takes to live the Christian life:
What are you up to this week? Grab a cup of coffee and let me in on it!
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.
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.
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.
It came up again today in conversation and I heard myself explaining away Lucia as somewhat of a limitation, a barrier to my acceptance of a prestigious position at a faraway university, and the words stung on my lips. I didn’t like the way they sounded, not because of what they necessarily made Lucia out to be, but as to what they failed to communicate about my life with her. We may not be in China or Europe or even the Midwest anytime soon given that moving, let alone traveling with Lucia is daunting, but I’m starting to see that parameters aren’t always limitations, but often, good and wonderful gifts.
When I focus on the things I can’t or no longer do as Lucia’s mother, I neglect the way in which our tax payment to the state of New Jersey took on new, holy meaning this year, as we’ve become so gracious for the services our daughter receives from the state everyday. Even the fact that we are seemingly grounded here because of Lucia’s state services misconstrues the amazing provision that we just happened to have a special needs child in one of the states with the greatest benefits for such kids. Lucia wasn’t accidentally born into such a blessing, but wonderfully, purposefully so.
And then there’s the incredible academic rebirth I’ve had as a result of learning to love Lucia. Whereas I was already studying foster children with disabilities in China, my experience with Lucia pushed me to develop and teach a new course on “Disability and Difference” at Princeton, to write on my personal experiences, and to begin to combine my scholarly and personal pursuits. My journey alongside Lucia to reconceptualize diversity, justice, and faith through the lens of disability has been revelatory, and I am so grateful for her guidance.
There’s a really mixed bag here because I often suffer with Lucia, and I also struggle to comfort her, understand her, and help her. I feel firmly that Lucia’s daily struggles shouldn’t be eclipsed by my own growth or edification. But several years after God acquainted me with foster families raising children with disabilities in China who made us want to become parents, then God granted us our one-in-a-million Lucia. I seek to embrace what God has shown me as God teaches me so profoundly that my daughter is fearfully and wonderfully made.
Another thing that I see is God melding these seemingly separate lives–that of the scholar, the pastor, and the parent–in far more intentional ways than I ever could. In other words, we have partially stayed in New Jersey because of Lucia’s special needs, but I’ve also stumbled upon an opportunity to minister and teach and care for my child here that is life-giving and good. The gift of living life alongside Lucia has taught me that life is not always as it seems, because there is blessing in what God builds amidst difficulty, sacrifice, and challenges.
I might have said then, that Lucia is hardly a limitation–rather she is a gift.
She is a person that has made my life so much more meaningful than it could have been otherwise. From one vantage point, her life has placed certain constraints on my own, but I believe she has also grounded me to see and experience the gifts and the goodness of God anew. She has pushed me to reevaluate that tenure track job, not because I can’t have it or she doesn’t want me to have it, but because it doesn’t necessarily represent promise, privilege, or prestige that really matters. She pushes me to live a life that matters, a life worthy of the calling I have received: she makes me whole in a way I could never have conceived.
And so I say, thank you God, for this good and perfect gift.
Princeton University Chapel. Photo by Evan Schneider.
Our pastor shared this poem, from Jan Richardson with us, on Ephiphany, and it has stuck with me. In fact, though Ephiphany has passed and we are eleven days into the new year, I find myself still eagerly greeting others with “Happy New Year,” still lingering over the blessings of Jesus’ birth and a holy season.
Perhaps, as the poem conjures, I’m both reluctant and eager to tread this new path, to embrace and forge ahead into this new year. Whatever the case, here are some beautiful blessings for the journey, for all those traversing new ground:
For Those Who Have Far to Travel An Epiphany Blessing
By Jan Richardson
If you could see
the journey whole
you might never
might never dare
the first step
that propels you
from the place
you have known
toward the place
you know not.
one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it
only by stages
as it opens
as it comes into
There is nothing
but to go
and by our going
take the vows
the pilgrim takes:
to be faithful to
the next step;
to rely on more
than the map;
to heed the signposts
of intuition and dream;
to follow the star
that only you
to keep an open eye
for the wonders that
attend the path;
to press on
beyond what would
from the way.
There are vows
that only you
the secret promises
for your particular path
and the new ones
you will need to make
when the road
you could not
Keep them, break them,
make them again:
each promise becomes
part of the path;
each choice creates
that will take you
to the place
where at last
you will kneel
to offer the gift
the gift that only you
before turning to go
A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon on the trust psalms, particularly Psalm 27, entitled, “Trust, Perseverance, and Doggedness.” When I went hunting for a closing hymn for the service, I stumbled upon a relatively new one entitled, “Faith Begins by Letting Go.”
While I ended up selecting it for the service, I felt a bit puzzled by the title, the lyrics, and the sentiment. The first stanza is as follows:
Faith begins by letting go Giving up what had seemed sure Taking risks and pressing on Though the way feels less secure Pilgrimage both right and odd Trusting all our life to God
I wasn’t sure I believed that faith begins by letting go of our foundation, taking risks, and that one’s pilgrimage should feel “both right and odd.” Still, something about the hymn seemed to resonate with the content of my sermon, especially the ode to one of the great contemporary spiritual writers, Anne Lamott, on perfectionism and they way in which our writing cramps up around our wounds as in life.
These past few weeks I’ve encountered my own cramps and struggles to write, and am starting to believe in this whole wisdom of letting go.
You see I was having a lot of trouble getting my thoughts to find substance and clarity on the page, writing and rewriting pages and pages of an article on my research with foster mothers in China. I kept thinking that despite my frustrations, I needed to have faith that these meanderings, however seemingly futile, had some semblance of progress and that I would eventually find my way if I kept at it.
However, this morning during my prayer time I realized that in the writing process, I’d started to lose the joy and excitement that is so genuine to my work with families in China. And I decided to give myself the freedom to reflect freely on what I learned and what I love about the families I worked with. In a away, I decided to free myself from the burden of writing something smart and relevant and pertinent to the academy and instead tap back into what these families, this culture, and these people taught me about God and life.
And suddenly I was at no lack for thoughts, ideas, and even words on the page.
I’m so thankful for the wisdom of letting go today–not only because it’s getting me closer to getting this article down on the page, but because it’s taking me to a revelation that I couldn’t have found on my own, by my own strength, might, or wisdom. It’s making clear my need to rely on God and others for insight, faith, encouragement, grace, and communion.
And despite how scary that is, it’s an an amazing place to be.