Category Archives: travel

Each other’s miracles

No matter who we are, no matter where we’ve come from, or what we’ve done, there are times in this life where we are reminded that we are but fragile humans, vulnerable to the myriad of threats to life on this planet.

Lashihai Lake, Yunnan, China.
Lashihai Lake, Yunnan, China.

And at times like these, we ask very important, very human questions about whether a good and mighty God causes or allows things like disaster, disease, or illness.

We asked some of these questions last Sunday as part of a summer series our pastor is engaging on questions from the congregation.  As she invited members of the congregation to share, it became apparent that we’re all struggling somehow–that these threats to life touch us all very deeply, because none of us, no matter how proficient at this thing called life, is immune to disease, disaster, or especially, death.

A mosque in Cairo, Egypt.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
A mosque in Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Ben Robinson.

And as our wise pastor shared her own thoughts on this difficult topic, looking out at many tear-stained faces in the congregation, she pointed us from God’s Old Testament miracles to Jesus’s healings, to his death on a cross, and finally, his resurrection and the Holy Spirit he left behind.  She reminded us, as she often does, that we are the body of Christ, and so we’re the ones that are charged with ministering to one another, with being Christ to one another in these moments where the questions seem to weighty to bear.

So I’ve been pondering, all week, the depth and simplicity of that theology, daring to wonder what life would be like if we were one another’s comfort, one another’s grace, each other’s miracles?

They would know we are Christians not by our love, but by our empathy, by our grace, and our mercy.  Because love is oft contaminated by the things of this world, sometimes most of all by we Christians and our misguided, self-righteous and judgmental  interpretations of truth.

Foster families in Qinzhou, Guangxi.  Photo by Jason Fouts.
Foster families in Qinzhou, Guangxi. Photo by Jason Fouts.

I’m led this week and this weekend to contemplate an economy of grace in which we can be a little more aware of how much we’re all hurting and a little less judgmental and a lot more humble about how healing happens.

What if instead of contemplating the origins of disease, asking how the bus driver got lung cancer, or quibbling with the details of disaster, wondering why people bother to live in Oklahoma which is so prone to tornados, we contemplated the length that Christ went for us on the cross, the underservedness of our own grace, and the abundance of grace in a world that’s often so graceless?  And then what if we committed to being not the one who speaks, but the one who prays, not the one who solves or fixes or even heals, but the one who recognizes, beholds, and reveres deep need?  What if we found a way to acknowledge great hurt, but live with great hope?

What if we were one another’s comfort, one another’s grace, each other’s miracles?

Young monks in Luang Prabang, Laos.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
Young monks in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Ben Robinson.

Oh Lord, come quickly.

Amen.

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Why I don’t regret the regrets

“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.” ― poem by Mary Jean Irion*

When I hear people proclaim the motto “no regrets,” I can’t help thinking that it’s a little prideful, short-sighted, and disingenuous.

I’m not advocating for living life on the bench, or engaging in some sort of flagellation that leaves not only the body, but the soul with real wounds.  And I appreciate the zealousness of trying to live life with vigor and intent.

But I think a healthy dose of introspection, when it comes to our mistakes, can also be enlightening.

With a foster family in Hubei.
With a foster family in Hubei. Photo by Jason Fouts.

Last night, as I realized that it’s been almost a year since we left our life in China, all I could think is if I had it to do over again, I would have spent more time at the feet of the foster mothers, hearing the trials of their lives during the Cultural Revolution, the story of each baby they’d raised, and their fears about the future.

I wish I’d looked out the window more often at those soaring karst peaks and endless fields of green rice paddies, because who knows when I’ll see them again?

Guangxi1

I wish I’d accepted every invitation to a bowl of rice noodles, a strange feast of chicken feet, or a home out in the countryside without running water or electricity.  It was in these places that I saw life lived with an irrepressible human spirit…and ate some of the best dumplings of my life.

With a dear friend.
With a dear friend.

I wish I’d told my friends all my fears and hopes and dreams, because I treasure the secrets they shared with me.  I recall them and revisit them like precious gems when I miss their friendship and their confidence.

I wish I’d made far more trips to the market, taken many more jogs around South Lake, and sat many more hours peering into the square from our balcony, and all despite the sticky heat.

Beside South Lake Park in Nanning, China.
Beside South Lake Park in Nanning, China.**

In short, I wish I’d slowed down to only love the people in front of me and nothing more.  I wish I’d treasured the normal days, for one knows not how many there will be.  I wish I’d known how extraordinary China and its people were before I left it.

One might call them regrets.

But I’m also left with gratitude for the simple joys God afforded me while I was there and some wisdom for living this life tomorrow.

*Special thanks to my friend, Kate, for posting this poem the other day.
**Bottom three photos by Evan Schneider.**

On community

When I came back from China I was really hurting.

I miss my life there, I would tell people with great drama, but it was how I felt, as though something had been ripped from me, because I’d had friends who knew my heart even though we spoke another language together.  I’d seen strength of character like no other in the foster mothers I’d met, and I wasn’t all that hopeful that I’d find it again in this land of affluence and privilege.

Statues in Paris, France.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
Statues in Paris, France. All photos by Evan Schneider.

But I was drawing these lines around communities the way God never does.

It was easier for me to compartmentalize and think in binaries: China was a place where great struggle and sacrifice produced something real and holy, whereas in the United States, life was hollow and stuffy, less shot through with God’s work, because there was less need, less contrast.

It wasn’t true, of course, but it seemed to make the ups and downs of culture shock more justifiable.  But I was insulating myself from life here by thinking and dreaming about China and logging many hours in Mandarin on skype.  Although I gradually reentered the world of academia and my husband I began to reconnect with friends and find a church community, deep down I still doubted whether these communities would ever compare to what I had in China.

Prayer candles in a cathedral.
Prayer candles in a cathedral.

This past weekend, my husband and I took a great leap and joined a church community that has gently, yet firmly demonstrated God’s faithfulness over the months of culture shock in this land.  What’s so powerful to me is that over those months, I haven’t particularly mentioned my doubts and fears to many people there.  We’ve told people that we spent time in China, but I haven’t asked for their prayers.  I didn’t really know how when sometimes the very prospect of being in community here seemed the last thing I wanted.

But as I’ve listened to the prayers of this community over the last few months, I’ve noticed something.  Before I went to China, I used to lead prayers of the people in my previous congregation, separating the joys from the concerns, but the people at our new church let them bravely comingle.  They don’t seem to worry that the praise of one might smart in the wounds of the suffering, or that great needs might rain on the parade of another’s blessing.  And that’s what life is like, what hope is like, not some naive optimism, but a conviction that suffering exists, and yet, God is very much present.

I realized, I’d been doing it all wrong.  

Not just the prayers of the people, but this theology of parsing the real from the ordinary, the needy from the privileged, and of course, the praise from the pain.  It makes sense to me now that as much as I’d seen and experienced God in China, China itself had become a hollow idol threatening to separate me from the real people in front of me.

Sacre Coeur at night.
Sacre Coeur at night.

This Sunday there was a family in front of us who’d lost a mother and a grandmother and there were painful tears shed as they asked for prayers of comfort and support from the church.  But there were also their arms draped around one another’s shoulders, and deep, heartfelt prayers of praise to a God who they know to be real, powerful, and present because they have each other, their friends, and their church community.

As Evan and I joined the church, nearly every member of this tight-knit family came and congratulated us, personally welcoming us to their community.  How people show that kind of hospitality and peace and love in the midst of loss is the best testimony I have to a God who is real, and who embodies hope and holism and life over death!  It’s that honesty in which people lay their hearts before community, but also the practice of hope and resurrection that’s healed me and freed me even though the people in the pews didn’t particularly understand my struggle or my pain.

Atop a grave marker in a Paris cemetery.
Atop a grave marker in a Paris cemetery.

Thank God they didn’t draw lines around their community.  Thank God there is room at the table.  And thank God for great, audacious hope in the midst of suffering.

Amen.

The evangelist in me

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”                              —2 Corinthians 3:17

The Japanese bridge at Giverny, France in Monet's Garden.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
The Japanese bridge at Giverny, France in Monet’s Garden. All photos by Evan Schneider.

A few days ago, I met with my spiritual director and told her about this restful trip to France, the adventure of following God, and the newfound freedom I’m experiencing in simply being who I am in God.

She’s been someone with whom I’ve laid bare my concerns about this dual calling to ministry and anthropology, with whom I’ve questioned, sometimes painfully, how I can do both–that is, academia and Church work– and how I can carve a space for myself that truly and faithfully integrates the two.

But as we spoke, that question started to sound so misplaced, so trivial…and even unfaithful.  As she repeated my own question about how I might synthesize these two callings back to me, it all suddenly sounded preposterous.

Because I’m not the answer.  

Of course, it’s just about the most basic truth in the book, but I marveled as I realized that I don’t do this work of integrating, synthesizing, or redeeming.  That’s all God.

Delaware River.
Delaware River.

And God is good at it.  

As I mentioned yesterday, God deals in abundance.  For God, there aren’t categories and confines, limitations and boundaries, but God is the very definition of holism, the place where our callings find perfect harmony and symphony.

And suddenly I feel so secure in all of that, and it’s effecting everything: the way I live, the way I speak, the way I rest, and the way I work.  This security in who I am in God has prompted me to share the faithful parts of me with my colleagues in anthropology and to find that they can not only understand, but also value what I’m talking about.  It’s pushed me to bring anthropology into the classroom at the seminary only to find that future pastors find it challenging, instructive, and meaningful.  And it’s shaped how I talk, write, and minister to foster mothers and brothers and sisters in China, the academy, and the Church.

“And that’s the definition of evangelism,” my spiritual director replied as she heard me muse on my newfound freedom in this God who is so perfectly gifted at integration.

A private courtyard in Paris, France.
A private courtyard in Paris, France.

I nodded, and tried not to gulp or cringe.

You see, I have an uneasy relationship to that word evangelism.  It’s partly my reverence for culture and diversity that makes me suspicious and uneasy of the hubris and insensitivity that often undergirds conversion.  It’s also my own experience–the fact that I’ve learned so much about myself, my faith, and my God from non-Christians– that makes me wary of anything that smacks of evangelism.  And finally, there’s the trappings of that loaded word evangelical and its problematic place in American politics and culture.

But if I’m honest with myself, those objections to the term or the project of evangelism are once again, more about me and my problems, than about God.  When it comes down to it, I’m all about ministry that’s outside the walls of the Church, prayer that stretches across boundaries of believers and nonbelievers, and beholding the sacred in everyday life.  I’m all about a God whose news is so good it doesn’t just dwell within the walls of the Church, the hearts of believers, or least of all, me.  

Flower
More from Giverny.

I’m beginning to accept that God’s good news seeps out of me, in spite of me, and that is good, too.

So you heard it from me first.  Turns out I’m an evangelical who’s learning to love the evangelist in me, because God is abundant, faithful, and good.  Because I can’t do what I’ve been called to without God’s wisdom, patience, and grace.  And because I’ve been set free–from sin, fear, and death–and that’s worthy of a testimony or two today.

Amen.

The God of Abundance

“My friend who is a Buddhist said once after coming out of a meditation retreat, ‘The colors were so much more vibrant afterward.’  Her meditation teacher said, ‘When you are present, the world is truly alive.'”  –Natalie Golderg, Writing Down the Bones

Monet's Garden at Giverny.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
Monet’s Garden at Giverny. All photos by Evan Schneider.

Sometimes when I take a vacation, my Protestant ethic won’t quit, and if I lounge in the sun without intention, sleep in, or indulge in some rich food, I can’t actually enjoy the stuff of life, because I’m too busy trying to tap into my greater purpose, honor my routine, and be intentional.

But the thing about the Protestant ethic, and the one that goes into overdrive for so many of us, is that it’s actually quite shoddy theology–theology that wrongly overemphasizes our small part in this big world, while deemphasizing God’s infinite wisdom.

Remember a few months ago when I blogged about the futility of swimming upstream versus the wisdom of going with the flow?  

Well, it turns out God lives in sweet rest, play, and adventure just as much as silence, intention, and purpose.  As my husband and I walked the cobbled stoned streets of Paris, marveling at all the amazing places we’ve been over these past five years together, we began to dream aloud about the next five, ten, and twenty years, and it was good.

Walking the streets of Paris.
Walking the streets of Paris.

The other morning as I spoke the language of my heart with a dear friend, I confided in her how delicious it has been to dream with God by my side, and how when so many things are wrong and scary and negative in our world, that blessing of vision that sees opportunity and possibility and goodness is from a God so worthy of praise!   

The best thing about this break is that coming home, it felt as if the colors here didn’t dull in comparison to those in Paris (although the coffee really did, but that’s for another post…),  but rather had blossomed and become more vibrant in my absence.  The air smelled clean, the sunrise eager, the sunset gentle and delicate, and I looked around and found my friends flourishing in their lives, too.  

Paris in bloom above the entrance to the subway.
Paris in bloom above the entrance to the subway.

And I rejoiced.

You know that real leap your heart does when it knows something to be good and you can barely contain yourself from jumping up and down and yelling like a little child?  I’ve felt that numerous times in just the past few days listening to my friends tell me that they’re thriving, and I see them following God with such earnest devotion.  And I realize that life is simply more exciting when you’re letting God call the shots, take the reins, and lead you in directions that you never could have dreamed.

I don’t think abundance is fleeting.

I think God is a God who deals in abundance, but our glimpse into understanding that abundance is limited and finite.  So today while I’m granted this vision, I’m filled with praise, joy, and reverence.  And I’m going to take in those vibrant colors, rejoice in who God is, and pray with dreams, conversations, and this precious life I’ve been given.

Stained glass in Saint Sulpice, Paris, France.
Stained glass in Saint Sulpice, Paris, France.

Amen.

The merits of doodling

“I was in love with reading and literature. There were stories only I knew about my family, about my first kiss, last haircut, the smell of sage on a mesa and my kinship with the flat plains of Nebraska. I had to get slow and dumb (and not take anything for granted) and watch and see how everything connects, how you contact your thoughts and lay them down on paper.” –Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

I’ve just started reading Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and I love the way she talks about writing as practice and meditation, and all the things that you, and only you know.

A view of Rodin's thinker.  Paris, France.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
A view of Rodin’s thinker. Paris, France. All photos by Evan Schneider.

Sometimes I think everything that’s good and true in my life and the direction thereof, I owe to my mother–especially that ninth grade world lit class that she pushed me to take when I wondered why anyone would take two English classes at one time (!) and whether it was kosher for a lowly freshman to enroll in a senior-level course.  And then, there I was with that young, handsome teacher and a classroom of older students that I found so momentously  my equals, but most importantly, with a stack full of books from authors like Camus, Achebe, and Shakespeare, who I began to believe  might actually want something to do with me.

Looking back, however, I question where or how I lost that enthusiasm for books or English and somewhat, history.  Or writing, for that matter–where did I become convinced that the few things I loved and was good at paled in the shadow of the world’s more noble pursuits of science, objectivity, and real life?  I think it was Clifford Geertz who said that all anthropologists are really just wanna-be, disguised, or failed writers, and I suppose the real question is, can we be both?

Light bulbs over a Paris cafe.
Light bulbs over a Paris cafe.

I have not read like I did since that high school English class, or written the sonnets, the stories, and the prose that used to win me awards, even.  Anthropology, yet another pursuit that my all-knowing mother launched me toward, has opened up so many doors and windows into my soul and others, brought me to so many corners of the Earth, and taught me new languages, and not just the ones we speak with words, but the deeper meanings of life, culture, and spirituality.  But what doors has it closed?  As I began to call myself an anthropologist, rather than a reader, a writer, or a poet, did I, in some ways, surrender the creativity in my mind to the limited ways of being found in this world?

View of the city from the dome of Sacre Coeur, Paris.
View of the city from the dome of Sacre Coeur, Paris.

In Paris this past week I’d see people painting scenes of the city and the gardens, scribbling into notebooks in cafes as I imagine Hemingway doing, or even doodling shapes and faces while listening to lectures at a conference at which I was presenting.  I used to doodle, I thought, as I watched the glamorous professor from Milan to my left sketch the contours of others’ cascading hair, sloping shoulders, and curved backs.  I don’t anymore.  In fact, my second thought was to wonder how an assistant professor can doodle, so juvenilely, during a conference presentation to which I assumed she’d be rapt with attention.  Perhaps that’s what the Italians do, I thought, but then I glanced around the room and the other scholars–French, Portuguese, Brazilian…all doodlers.

The fact is, it seems novel to realize that I, the committed anthropologist, can pick up a pen or a pencil and create something other than empirical social science, and that I want to.  In many ways that’s what this blog has been for me, a place to doodle a bit and without crafting a conference paper or treatise, dream something a bit more “inner worldly” rather than the worldly travel notes, kinship charts, or ethnography I’m used to writing.  Perhaps that’s why the words have often so hungrily leapt onto the page, why posts can feel effortless even while the conference papers won’t come.  They are vestiges of that innocence, that playfulness and self-discovery that led me to read in the first place and to even dare to call myself a writer.

The view inside Notre Dame.
The view inside Notre Dame.

I’m not wanting to part with ethnography–in fact, I’m writing one, and I love reading them because they capture some of that creativity, that art that life clearly has and science tends to stifle.   I often tell people that I love anthropology because it’s deeply concerned with culture but at such a fundamentally human, relational level.  I love ethnography because it doesn’t efface the author, but brings he or she into view, into relationship, if you will, with the other subjects and cultures and problems.

But the anthropologist isn’t her own protagonist; she relies on others.  And she doesn’t write about all the little things, the things that I and only I know so firmly.  She doesn’t write about her mother, her freshman English class, Camus, Achebe, Shakespeare, or a life trajectory that includes physics and Puerto Rico, ministry and China.  Those kinds of stories, I’m realizing, are left to be written and pursued, by doodles, scribbles, and practice, one word, dream, and recommitment to the world of imagination, at a time.

What about you–do you doodle? What stories do only you know and have left to tell?

C’est la vie.

“Paris is… the best city to wander around alone because it’s so beautiful you feel like it’s hugging you.”   —Lessons in French, by Hillary Reyl

This is just a quick update to say that the blog’s been ho-hum as of late because we’re in Paris on a fifth year anniversary/conference/stuff your face food tour, and while we’ve been seeing lots of lovely things like cathedrals and art and cobbled streets, the photos are firmly in the digital camera (and subject to my husband’s critical editing eye) until we return, and I’ve been doing that thing lately where you soak it all in before you muse onto the page.

Still, just a few updates: we’re spending the full two weeks in Paris, because Evan caught a nasty cold on the plane, so we’ll save the trip to Burgundy, the Loire, and Normandy for another time!  That means we’ve been scrambling to book hotels last minute, but that we’ve also experienced the personalities of several different arrondissements intimately.  And I finally get the flaneur thing: it is so wildly freeing and delicious to just stroll about leisurely in this beautiful city, though it has also been predictably disorienting not to be able to speak the language, my heart still leaps a bit every time I hear Chinese, and Paris feels so decisively more foreign to me than Asia!

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Fuzzy photo (courtesy of a friend’s iphone) of some strolling down those magical streets.

I’m convinced that I’m not sophisticated enough for all this, and yet I’ll–we’ll–continue to fake it, muddling through in our best attempts at French and French accents, which has gotten us some memorable and satisfying coffee, food, and views.  And faking it isn’t so bad really– I’ll take satisfaction over sophistication pretty much any day.

Outside the walls

A few months ago I overheard my husband counseling a friend who was going to accompany us to a party thrown by a bunch of my colleagues in anthropology.  “You don’t have to worry with them,” my husband assured our friend, “anthropologists are interested in everything.  Watch, whatever you say they’ll find it interesting, they’ll talk about anything forever.”

It’s evidently what makes us quirky party attendees or hosts, but I like to think that our curiosity as anthropologists is also one of our best qualities.  We find the world more interesting, more beautiful precisely because of diversity and difference.  Life is more intriguing because of culture, because your corner of the world doesn’t look talk, or act, like mine.  And yes, I could talk about those fascinating differences in culture, well…forever.

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A foster mom in Anhui, China embraces her foster son. Photo by Jason Fouts.

On the last day of the class I was teaching at the seminary this semester, when I felt like I’d earned the right to speak a little of my own passion into my students’ lives, I challenged them to believe that they might learn just as much about God outside the Church walls or the seminary campus as within.  I asked them to dare to believe that pushing their faith to include, behold, embrace, and learn from people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds–pushing their faith to be real outside the Church might actually make it deeper, more powerful, and more poignant.

You see, I think that while it’s human to be curious, it’s also human to be really freaked out by difference.  And when we Christians get skittish, we often take a lot of the beauty and truth and goodness that God has blessed and made and called good and try to cram it into our manmade boxes.  I think good theology and good anthropology teach us to do just the opposite (like reminding us that Jesus blew the chains off women, tax collectors, diseased men and women, and prostitutes,  and included us Gentiles in salvation) (or anthropology that shows us how insightful, productive, and healthy cultural differences are), but we humans also like to be in control.

Anyway, I said these things to my students not only because they’re my truth but also because the next generation of spiritual leaders just might be our politicians, professors, doctors, lawyers, philosophers, non-profit managers, prison wardens, and community organizers.  A friend of mine had a conversation last week with a faculty member at the seminary who said her greatest concern is that we are preparing seminarians for jobs and a world that doesn’t exist.  A few days later, that same friend asked me whether I claim my Christian faith in community and what that means.

Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And I realized for the first time in years of discerning and seeking and praying that I can say that I’m “out,” for lack of a better term, in my department at my university, as a Christian, a minister, a person of faith, and it finally feels right.  My colleagues happily introduce me as their resident pastor, they call on me for counsel in difficult situations because they know I’m not afraid of the messiness of life, and they even appreciate being told they are prayed for.

But it doesn’t just go one way–these same colleagues hold me accountable when I begin to complain or gossip, they counsel me through life’s big decisions, and they rejoice and grieve with me.  Both these experiences close to home and those afar of being ministered to by those supposedly outside the fold have taught me that the Spirit isn’t limited to the walls of the Church despite our unconscious, subversive efforts to confine it.  The prophetic isn’t limited to God-fearing people, and Christians don’t have a monopoly on Truth.

A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Ben Robinson.

Perhaps this is where my anthropology meets my theology so nearly, neatly, and dearly–in the enmeshing of the sacred and the profane in the everyday lives of people in culture, relationship, and meaning-making.  Real salvation is transcendent in that it seeps out of our pores to touch everyone we meet and everything we do.  And so I think theological education has to change to respond to not only this reality, but this Truth.  It has to equip all these people who are going to be outside the walls of the Church institution, and who will be ambassadors of faith and hope and love in this world.

I look around and I value and am inspired by both forms of leadership, service, and ministry–those inside the Church and out–but I believe the Church and seminaries have often been focused on internal ministry at the expense of the external, and our lives are lived, made, and redeemed in the everyday.

A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Thanks for letting me talk forever and ever this morning about what I really find interesting in this beautiful, strange, sacred world.

P.s. You may notice the blog has a new look.  About time, right?  Everything’s pretty much the same except some of the links are to the right and on the bottom.  Thanks for stopping by and let me know what you think of the facelift.   —Erin

Your life starts now.

A month or so ago I heard an academic who’s written well-respected books, gotten tenure, traveled the world, and shot films say if she had it to do all over again she would have realized that her life wasn’t waiting to start after the dissertation, after she graduated from associate to full professor, after she got tenure, etc., etc., etc., but in fact, “your life starts now.”

This phrase isn’t just relevant to the academic world where we trick ourselves into thinking life and all that is good is marked by dissertations and tenure-track positions, but in all vocations, and the ministry that happens betwixt and between.  The words of those faithful brothers and sisters from my church this past weekend, proclaiming that they’d always been a church made me think about my own ministry, and the ways in which, I’ve always been ministering.

Now it doesn’t always look like archetypal ministry, but I’m guessing yours doesn’t either.  I’m guessing most ministry happens in snippets and soundbytes and sewers, not in pulpits and with pastors or priests.  We minister wherever we are and with what we have to one another, and the efficacy of that ministry isn’t dependent on our education, our status, or even our resources, but rather our reliance on the Spirit.

Sonoran Desert, Arizona.
Sonoran Desert, Arizona.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

But there’s another lesson in counter-cultural living, right?

Sometimes when people ask me what I’m really going to do with my life, when I finish these Ph.D. studies, or what the dream job I’m really aiming at looks like, and I can’t answer them, I feel afraid, embarrassed, and anxious.  But I’m learning, slowly but surely, to be so grateful and so secure in what God has given me in this life and who God is that I can live without certainty about the next step or a linear trajectory, and yet with great faith that God will provide for me and for others and nurture my call.

When my mother took me with all my heart problems to Mexico with the youth group in high school, she had reason to believe she should leave me home.  But if she had, I wouldn’t have felt the Spirit move in my heart in a familiar way but toward unfamiliar places, calling me to ministry on that US-Mexico border during college, and to Puerto Rico, Washington, DC, Princeton Seminary, China, and Princeton University.  My mother showed me first what it means to have faith in who God is rather than yourself, someone else, or logical processes and trajectories.

Yong River. Guangxi, Nanning.
Yong River. Guangxi, Nanning.

Living as though your life starts now often appears irresponsible, because the steps of your path are connected by the movement and provision of the Spirit rather than your own professional progression or enrichment.  But when you realize how much you’ve been given by that Spirit, how faithfully that Spirit has provided, and how meaningful it is to surrender the control we delude ourselves with, you get really grateful, glad, and confident.

So I’m learning when people ask me that snarky question, so what are you really going to do with your life? to smile with blessed assurance and to say confidently, “this is it, I’m doing it.”  There’s ministry enough for all of us if we can just find a way to live by the guidance of the Spirit, to live as though our lives start now.

When God dreams

I shut my eyes a week ago now during a moment of mediation.

Talking with foster parents in Hubei, China.  In addition to this foster baby, this sweet couple had twins who were napping when we visited, and of course we loved gabbing about how I'm a twin, too!
Talking with foster parents in Hubei, China. In addition to this foster baby, this sweet couple had twins who were napping when we visited, and of course we loved gabbing about how I’m a twin, too!  Photo by Jason Fouts.

And I was so instantly and effortlessly transported to China with this bird’s eye view of the people, the places, the sights, and the smells to which I’d come to feel a part of and find so comforting and familiar.  I was filled with such deep gratitude for how God sets us out upon journeys we hadn’t even begun to dream of.

Guangxi countryside.  I took this one from the train!
Guangxi countryside. I took this one from the train!
More visiting with foster parents and kids in Hubei.  Photo by Jason Fouts.
More visiting with foster parents and kids in Hubei. Photo by Jason Fouts.

But as I mediated on how the damp dark insides of humble homes aside foster moms had become places of warmth and connection, I wondered where it is that I truly belong.  When I glimpse photos such as these they tug so deeply at my heart strings, because I remember each family as if it were yesterday– the words we spoke, the disabilities their children face, the worn wrinkles of their kind eyes and hands and faces.

Several months ago, freshly displaced from China, these thoughts would have also driven fear into my heart with their ability to force doubt into the pathways that seem so clear and foreordained.  But I’m learning that faithfulness to God is rejoicing in these pangs of connection and communion, thanking God for the gifts of life in China, and thanking God for the journeys that only God’s yet begun to dream of.

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I forget that China wasn’t always so comforting, that in the midst of connection and communion, I lived with great uncertainty in China, too.  This is how I’m learning to rejoice in the midst of challenges, because I’m looking around and I can see God’s hand so clearly in those valleys in China, and I strive to believe it’s here, too.  And so the other evening as a few colleagues permitted me to make the analogy, I began to realize that dissertation-writing is an act of faith, too: we may not know where we’re going but we’re trusting that the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, are all building toward something.

Once again I’m humbled by the thought that I don’t belong to just one place or one people or one vocation.  I belong to God.  And my faith isn’t just about serving God in China, but writing this dissertation bit by bit, teaching a class with service in mind, and lingering in the belonging that these moments yield.  I guess as I’m getting older, I’m getting more comfortable with the fact that there isn’t one clear path, I’m getting more comfortable in journeying rather than fixing my eyes on destinations, but mostly God is teaching me that I can be confident in the little that I do know, because that’s enough.  

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It’s enough to be a follower and to follow God with great faith.  

In fact, that may be the only thing that matters in life, and while it’s often terrifying, it’s also thrilling.

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Saying goodbye to families in Hubei. Photo by Jason Fouts.