Tag Archives: brokenness

What God does

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Advent and Breaking In

My husband and I attended an Advent service on Sunday evening: candles were lit, we sang “This is Christ the King,” and there were repeated prayers that God, hope, and power would break into our lives this season.

Stones for the foundation of a church in Yunnan, China.
Stones for the foundation of a church in Yunnan, China.

For some reason these words, these prayers for “breaking in” caught my ear.  As I’ve ruminated over them the past few days, I’ve come to see that there’s inherent violence to the language, the request, and the action: we’re asking for God to shatter our present reality and its comforts and even our sense of justice.

In reality, being broken into is a terrifying experience: I recently retold a story to family and friends about a time I awoke at four am in a strange hotel room in Yunnan, China to see a hand reaching out of the curtain towards me!  And brokenness, the type our God suffers on a cross all because we could not receive him as King, is the shattering of bones, spirit, and blood.

So why do we pray for brokenness?

I think while we ask for our worlds to be turned upside down, we’re often a lot more like Herod in the Biblical story than the shepherds who make their way to the manger.  We don’t like to think that when threatened we’d come up with some power-hungry, violent plan to preserve ourselves, but the flesh in me questions just how open, how cognizant, or how hospitable we might really be to a new order, a new truth, a baby King.  

Something tells me we’d be more likely to go kicking and screaming to the manger, if at all.

Sometimes I went kicking and screaming to the people I came to know in China.  I resented that my time had to resolve around them, I got hungry and tired walking from house to house, from field to field, and I dreaded those hours of buses and trains with little sleep or comfort.  I tried to put up walls that would preserve my sense of control, my time, and my culture.  Because to me, the Chinese life felt incredibly inconvenient and uncomfortable at times, and I didn’t want to let my sense of culture, right and wrong, or justice be disrupted by their messy worlds.

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But in breaking is a lot like living in China, I think.  

It’s the opposite of convenient, because it’s revelation where God doesn’t ask us to give way–God simply shoves us and all our convictions aside.  I saw a meme this week that said, “the world needs a stable influence,” but as long as we think of the stable as stabilizing, quaint, or even hygenic, we lose sight of the meagerness of the manger, the upheaval of nations and kings wrought by it, or the savior that made his way into the world only to be rejected, broken, and burdened by our sin.

It’s not that this season isn’t about joy and hope and power–the Christ story is ultimately a story of redemption from sin and evil when all seemed to be lost.  But given what God has done, I’m not so sure we need to pray that God breaks in.  Instead, I wonder if our prayer shouldn’t be that God make us willing and able to recognize and receive revelation, inconvenient as it may be, or seemingly out of place in a season we’ve chosen to decorate with candles and Christmas.

Bringing the water buffalo home for the day in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Bringing the water buffalo home for the day in Yunnan, China. Photos by Evan Schneider.

 

On holes and wholeness

I’ve been quiet this past week.  

It’s mostly because I’m still struggling with reentry, with being vulnerable, and with seeking God, and not feeling whole.  I didn’t post because I keep worrying that this refrain is bothersome, tired, and a little too heavy for the blogging world.

Fall leaves in Princeton, New Jersey.

In fact, I keep worrying waaaaaaay too much about what everyone else thinks…except for God.  I mentioned awhile ago that I’d been hanging onto others’ pieces of advice a little too eagerly and that my own chokeholds, my negative self talk and my efforts to intellectually solve or parse these problem of cultural coherence, grief, and loss just aren’t working.

They’re not working because my body tells me things my mind doesn’t even register.  They’re not working because I’m living in a life full of holes I can’t see, but I feel palpably and powerfully at the most inopportune moments.

And I’m discovering that this illusion of control that is such a powerful, productive concept in theory amounts to unpredictable, unexplained, and sudden expressions of emotion in practice, that make me feel very awkward, embarrassed, and well, out of control.

It’s not a good feeling.  

And it reminds me of the many times in my fieldwork when these amazingly solid, stoic women would burst into tears and reach out for me momentarily, only to literally, push me away, out of that fleeting embrace, making me wonder whether it had really just happened.  I realize, perhaps some of my own condescension and arrogance, in wanting those embraces to last longer, especially as I now realize we are all out of control, we simply express it at different times, and in different ways.

Comforting a woman in Yunnan province, Nov. 2010.  Photo by Leslie Santee.

I’m realizing the hard way that I can’t fight these feelings or this process, and when I do it simply pushes God and others farther and farther away.  This morning I felt God telling me that it’s all okay, this messiness of learning how to love again, be loved, and to receive, and there’s nothing that will be lost along the way that can’t be recovered.  I hear God also reminding me how good God is at loving me, if I will just let that be my priority in this season.

A week ago I thought I was finally getting really good at accepting my brokenness, but it’s going to take some time to really get there.  What’s paradoxical about the spiritual journey is I continue to believe that brokenness really is the path to wholeness.

It’s going to be hard to do this, to be present with God, but if I can just focus on one thing, let it be that, not peace, or excellence, or books, or productivity.  Those things will come.

New York City on a recent fall evening.

But in the meantime, I gotta believe that there’s enough grace out there for me, too.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

On the Princeton campus, glimpses of green.

I didn’t write about it, but last week my world, and it’s positively because I’m still betwixt somewhere between China and this country, came crashing down.

And I wept, and worried, and wondered what solace I could find in this place and these people who seem so far removed from anything of the experience I had in China, from the people who sometimes only seem to live on in my heart, but who I know from the wonders of technology continue to suffer, create, and go on in a way I never could in a life so much more valiant than my own.

And I struggled with what it means to love and minister without presence, what it means to leave people behind, how much these feelings are about me and my need to assess and feel my own impact in this world, and where God’s call is in this moment.

I shouldn’t write struggled, past tense, because I’m still struggling.

Fall leaves on the Princeton Seminary campus.

But I’ve been encouraged by your comments, your grace with me during this time, your encouragement that reverse culture shock is a messy, nonlinear process, and that narratives of struggle, like my own, can be meaningful to others, despite our disparate paths.

I guess that’s where I’m led this morning–to see that Jesus’ healing is the opposite of judgement, that we don’t grow by covering up our faults and our failings, but rather by bearing our scars to one another and finding that miraculously, by grace, in our imperfections, we find ourselves whole.

The choke holds I assert on myself when I find my own needs bubbling up in the midst of my fears and my prayers for my friends in China just don’t get me any closer to that wholeness.  And the older I get, I find the people I most admire in this life are not the ones who have these linear narratives of autonomy, success, and brilliance, but those who resolve to live in the space where mistakes are always imminent, where brokenness is the real human condition, and triumph is wholly and unabashedly attributed to God’s goodness rather than individual expertise.

So I’m feeling pretty good about being broken this morning, like both my dear friends in China and my understanding friends in this country.  The more I see how deeply we all need God’s restorative grace, the less alone I feel, and the more I can’t help but think we’re all inexplicably bound together in this wonderful, holy pursuit of our God in this life.

New York skyline at dusk.

And that, my friends, feels pretty much like the opposite of crashing.

So, thank you for catching me, once again.

Farewell, China. And hello, America.

My heart is heavy as I leave China this day.

And it’s not only because we’re attempting to pack two years of life here into two big duffle bags, or because of who we leave behind–people of love and faith who have reached out to us as strangers in a foreign land and welcomed us as their own.

My heart is also heavy because of the brokenness in this world.

A few days ago Evan and I had Hong Kong-style dimsum with some British friends who’ve spend almost ten years in China at a delicious restaurant in the heart of Nanning, China.  We chatted the way only expats can about the joys of being sheltered from the burdens of our respective nations’ budget woes and political spats, and also about the challenges of life in a foreign place.

Evan and I admitted that going back into the political fray, especially during an election year, feels overwhelming and a bit nonsensical.  When you’ve been living in a land where there is effectively no child welfare, people die of natural causes in their fifties, and birth defects and tainted milk are commonplace, it’s sometimes hard to take seriously what (especially from far away) sounds like senseless squabbling over the US Olympic team uniforms being made in none other than China, and the like.

Meanwhile, across China, people often have a healthy, if not exaggerated, admiration for America.  When the cashier in the grocery store finds out I’m an American, or the old man smoking his cigarette in the park, I’m greeted with a thumbs up and cheers for this country from which I come.  It’s just one reason, why, although being a foreigner in China can elicit all too many lengthy stares and smatterings of predictable, surface level questions (Do you like the NBA?  Kobe Bryant?  McDonald’s?  Chinese food?), ultimately being strange in this strange land actually feels strangely warm.

And so over the years, I’ve tried to help my Chinese friends see that I love and respect China for real, sincere reasons.  My Chinese friends are often surprised to hear that they have a more robust, reliable, affordable public transport system than America.  They’re often shocked to hear that we struggle with the question of affordable health care, and dismayed to see that we don’t treat elderly people all that well.  America may be great, but we’re not perfect, and so I’ve tried in my small ways to encourage a more nuanced dialogue between our two countries and cultures in my short time here.

But this week, as the brokenness of our nation reared its ugly head and the entire world remains stunned by the shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, I realize how much despite its faults and seams that show perhaps only to its citizens, America has been and will always be my home.  I’m not ready to talk about the shootings with my Chinese friends who adamantly argue that America has gun problems because we have so many guns (although I do see their point).  I don’t want to talk about how the shootings in Colorado could have been prevented or what we can do to move on, but suddenly I have an urgency to get back to this place and to these people who are hurting, despite the fact that I can effectively do very little to ease anyone’s pain or suffering.

My heart is heavy today to behold that we’re still living in Eden lost, as a fellow Chinese expat-blogger put it, and that no manner of cultural understanding or growth can transcend the grief and pain people feel this day.  I struggled with even writing this post, because I don’t want to appear as though I think my words (written from so far away) can either heal or provide real insight to such deep tragedy.

But I wanted to write to express that especially given the brokenness in my country at this moment, I am an American who is grateful for the things that do make America great.  And I hope these will prove to be our ability to embrace one another during difficult times, our ability to stand in solidarity with one another, and our belief in a power greater than ourselves who suffers alongside those who weep this day.  

It’s with a heavy heart that I bid you farewell China, and begin the journey home, America.

From Jesus’ perspective

Some reflections on Luke chapters 17-19:

I suppose it’s only natural that when reading the scriptures, we, in all our brokenness and humanity, rarely consider the perspective of Jesus.  We rarely put ourselves in his place to consider how he felt, how he lived, how he died.

And most of the time, I think that’s a good thing.  

I mean, we are none other than those to whom he is telling parable after parable, his doubting Thomases, his eager, but altogether feeble Peters.  We, like his faithful twelve, had we been there, would not have understood either when he proclaimed his impending death, the darkness that was to come, the terrible suffering of the Son of Man.

A view of the Li River in Guangxi, Guilin.

But today I’m still left wondering how it felt for Jesus, being fully human, to bear that cross, and here I’m speaking figuratively, rather than literally.  Is it not another condition of our humanity to feel so deeply the pain of rejection, the uneasiness of misunderstanding, and the frustration, the exasperation of trying to explain oneself to others who cannot possibly understand or in this case, even conceive of one’s circumstances?

It leaves me even more in awe of our Lord to consider that in his final days he never gave up on us, he never forsake those tired, faulty disciples, but rather continued to preach and teach, to comfort and to charge, in the face of death and uncertainty.  Sometimes I forget how deeply Jesus understands us, because he truly lived among us, felt our rejection, and yet never turned away from us.

So it is that considering the perspective of Jesus brings me to my knees this morning.

Because try as I might to know his experience of rejection and loneliness in this world, I ultimately find myself in the shoes of the aggressors, the doubters, the naysayers, and the weak.  And so I thank God again, with fresh insight, that God sent God’s only son, the one and only Christ who could possibly fill the void, so that we might be freed from loneliness, rejection, and misunderstanding in this lifetime.

Amen.

All photos by Evan Schneider.