Tag Archives: academia

The wisdom of percolation

The other week a colleague and I did a presentation for Ph.D. students about the job market.  She told them that when she started looking for jobs her own adviser told her that it’s not that difficult to find job, but to find a job that leads to or amounts to a career takes about four to five years on average in academia.

I could see the desperation and disillusionment in the students’ eyes, but deep inside, I sighed a bit.  Her words reminded me that we so often look at others around us and all we see is where they are now, the fruits of their hard work, and we assume things came quickly and easily to them, probably—no–definitively, more quickly and easily than they came for us.

But what if that’s not the truth?  What if I reminded you today that good things take time?  And that the good things that others have, those took time, too.  

See, despite my sigh, I saw myself in the eyes of those students.  Here I am not even three months into my new job and I’ve been beating myself up a bit, because I haven’t made it around to all that much of my writing, I don’t have a clear three-year vision for this appointment, and I’m not sure what role I can or should play in institutional change.

But it’s been three months.  

And my expectations crammed into those short months, for the next three years, reek of impatience, perhaps even faithlessness.  I wouldn’t expect to take a new job in a church and within three months implement dramatic changes.  No, I’d recognize and routinize the value in listening, observing, taking in what’s God is and has already been doing before ploughing boldly ahead.

So I’m drawn these days to something like the wisdom of percolation, to recognizing and valuing that if we people work hard for years beneath the shadows, then surely God needs time to work, too.  That perhaps we’ve got it all wrong: time is not against us, but for us, in that it takes time to understand, to learn, and to grow, and God wants us to have and to hold and to enjoy that time with God.  I would and can afford that time to my students, but it’s a bit more difficult when it comes to me.

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Fall in Washington, DC.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But maybe, just maybe, I’m right where I need to be.

Maybe you are, too.

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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.

Why I’ve learned to see gifts where others see limitations

The tenure track job.

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.

In a recent blog post, a friend of mine wrote about how much his son with special needs has taught him not just about life but about the Bible and about God.  The truth is so much of Lucia’s giftedness is in revealing to me my own limitations, in enlightening me in what God is already doing, and in inspiring me to be a better follower, servant, and mother.  Lucia shows me the fullness of life, not in her limitations, but in our mutual, challenging, deep relationship, and I am deeply grateful.  Lucia continues to push me to fulfill my purpose in God and for others.

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.

Lucia and Daddy
Lucia staring into her Daddy’s eyes during a recent hospital stay.  My photo.

 

On worshipping false gods

1 Corinthians 13:1-10

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogantor rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

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

I’ve heard these verses countless times–at weddings, from the pews, we even memorized them in Sunday school.  But I hardly noticed the clanging of my own symbol or the noise of my own gong  until the words were already out of my mouth, until it was too late.

I don’t think I’ve experienced such peer pressure since high school but I didn’t recognize it as such because I was in the company of adults.  The trite laughter at the expense of others, the insider-outsider politics, and the meanness of it all should have made it clear.

But I played along.  

I laughed with those mean-hearted academics, albeit with a sinking feeling in my stomach.  I became a clanging symbol, a noisy gong, a person I, myself, despised.

What I did that evening over a lovely dinner with not so lovely company is that I bowed before the god of knowledge, success, and reason rather than the wisdom of grace.  Feeling myself seduced by the grandeur of expertise and success I felt ugly, false, and fearful.  These are the feelings that make me question how I can ever live out this academic vocation while remaining true to a God of love and grace?

In sharing this crisis  with others around me, I’ve been reminded that while love, wisdom, and grace are certainly counter-cultural to the academic hustle-and-bustle, they’re not wholly absent.  As one of my colleagues pointed out, if we hate these types of dinner conversations, it’s up to this next generation of scholars to believe that there’s room enough for us all to be smart and succeed, and we don’t have to do it by stepping on one another to get there.  Success is also something that seemingly looms large and scarce, but as it turns out success can mean fulfillment, and fulfillment takes many forms.  There are also bullies like these everywhere, not only in academia.

The moon over the Catalinas.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The moon over the Catalinas. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I just don’t want to be one of them.

At the end of the day, I felt so blessed to come home to my husband and daughter and see that in spite of my antics that evening, their grace and God’s grace embraced me fully.  At that moment my efforts to fit in and be smart were a farce, and forgiveness made me feel low and humble, but fully at home and free.

The scripture above says that even knowledge will come to an end!  And when knowledge fades, it is only faith, hope, and love that remain.  I am inspired by this pursuit of knowledge in my life, but the other night was a good reminder that it should not consume me.  I will not be consumed by worshipping these false gods of knowledge, success, and self-aggrandizement.  Instead I will rejoice in worshipping a God who wants more for me and for all his children, a God whose grace is sufficient, a God whose love is everlasting.  I will struggle to be faithful and I will call myself blessed.

Amen.

Virtual coffee date

“I think I just love ideas,” I said to my husband dreamily the other evening after a particularly rousing conversation with a colleague.

It didn’t seem like much a revelation, but I may have mentioned that defending my Ph.D. last year has seemed to open up all this conceptual space with which to dream about vocation both in and outside of academia.  It’s been at once exhilarating and daunting.  There’s so much freedom that I’m almost paralyzed by it.

Halong Bay, Photos by Evan Schneider.
Halong Bay, Photo by Evan Schneider.

But to acknowledge and relish that I really get a kick out of talking about theories, ideas, and people is a small start.  And then the other day as I chatted with a colleague on the seminary campus who turned to go into her office, I turned to head back to the university campus, to my syllabi, articles, and ideas.  And I was so thrilled and so grateful to have that desk, that community, and those ideas.  I realized as scary as it is to admit, I’m not ready to give up on the academic job search yet.  I want to see it through a bit longer.  I want to continue to pursue these possibilities, because I have so much passion for the work I did with foster families and children with disabilities in China, for China itself, for students, and for anthropological knowledge and those ways of thinking.

Things seem positively turned upside down in my life right now and I have no idea what God is doing.  But I’m trying to learn (again) to be content with that– to embrace the thought that this not knowing about the future is not really so bad and that life is an adventure that is so much better when we let God lead.

The other morning I saw the sun for the first time in a long, long time, and some words from good ol’ Anne of Green Gables came to me as I happily thought, “Today is fresh, with no mistakes in it yet.”

Trying to live in that freshness, faithfulness, and fullness that God so generously provides.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Have a good weekend.  What are you up to?

There are typos in my dissertation

When I finished typing the last few words I set aside my dissertation for about a week.

I was afraid to read it, because I knew there would be typos amidst that sea of words.  It’s just impossible, not matter how many proofreaders, no matter how much time spent, to produce something perfect.  And while I know that, I didn’t want to experience the pang of how those mistakes would mar the crisp, white pages.  I wanted to believe that there was some way that all my hard work would pay off with perfection.

Like I said, that lasted about a week, and then I had to face reality.  I read through it, in preparation for my dissertation defense, and there were many typos.

And it was still okay.

One of my last dissertating sessions.  My photo.
One of my last dissertating sessions. My photo.

In fact, the typos reminded me that I’m not in pursuit of something perfect, but something human, something meaningful.  What’s more, I could see beyond the typos to those people in China who changed my life.  As I read, I was humbled to see and know that despite the congratulations that would be heaped on me and only me after the defense, this dissertation, was truly the work of many hands.  The typos reminded me that despite the perfection that’s so idolized in academic fields, we academics are imperfect people who rely heavily on the minds, kindness, and generosity of others to produce our knowledge.

There were moments where the typos made me wonder whether I had any business defending a dissertation toward a Ph.D., but I’ve also realized that it’s great to recognize that while you have learned a lot, you still have much more to learn.  It’s not so bad to see typos and be humbled and recognize that you’d rather be transformed and human and vulnerable than perfect and magnificent and independent.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful, in all circumstances, for typos, for friends, for family, for foster families in China, for dissertations, for new journeys, for imperfection, for growth, for love, for peace, and for God.

What about you?

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.

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.