Tag Archives: Christianity

Holy weakness

In the last few weeks, we’ve settled into a pretty natural rhythm with Lucia’s digestive struggles–constipation and screaming some days, vomiting others, and a lot of delight and sunshine in between. I feel like a broken record when people ask me how she’s doing, because we’re out of the woods we were in in 2018–pain management, feeding intolerance, hospitalizations–and yet, things are never easy. And if I’m honest with you and with myself, I’ve been feeling a bit weak and weary on this journey.

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Lucia crying in pain in mommy’s arms.  All photos mine.

It’s an unsettling, even repulsive feeling for me.

I don’t experience myself as a weak person. I don’t experience Lucia as a weak person either. References to weakness in common culture, even in Christian circles, often smart for me, because it seems like we prefer to instrumentalize and capitalize on other people’s weaknesses, particularly and presumably those with disabilities and diseases, rather than feel or examine our own.

Perhaps the problem is the blame, the shame we instinctively attach to weakness–for my own part it’s attached to the responsibility I carry as Lucia’s mother, a teacher to my students, a scholar in disability, a pastor to others–the feeling that I’ve got everything to lose and nothing to gain in embracing, showing, or even acknowledging my weakness. You can’t be weak when you need to be strong. And in a culture where mothers are so often blamed and scapegoated for society’s anxieties and ills, how can anyone be honest about their own trials, their own weaknesses, their own humanity?

But here’s an even greater truth I know: we’re not meant to heal ourselves.

In fact, if there’s one thing Jesus’s ministry teaches me it’s that healing is first and foremost connected and relational. It can’t happen if we keep to ourselves. No, Jesus’s healing ministry invites us in, all of us. It connects people to each other, in our own needs and messiness as humans.

And at the very center of it is a weak Jesus who wants to be with us in our own weakness! I kinda can’t get over that truth. I struggle to believe it, really.

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Inside the Duke University Chapel on a recent trip.

But what if weakness–vulnerability–is more like permeability, surrender, yielding, and surprise–elements that, like Jesus, are so not of this world that we rarely recognize or behold them as God with us, rather they are conjured and dismissed as mere weaknesses when they appear in plain sight?

So this Lent, I feel myself being asked to do this wild, holy, dangerous thing of living boldly in my weakness–letting you know that I literally forgot to have the oil tank filled and my house had no heat a few weeks ago because I was so scattered and thin. And even then, Jesus didn’t shutter or scoff at my humanity, but loved me (and people loved me, too) anyway. As mothers we’re pretty good at being with our kids when they’re weak, but we cloak our own weakness lest it makes us reprehensible, permeable, out of control, irresponsible. And so last Tuesday, after I took Lucia to her usual doctor’s appointment, she came long to mine. I’d been trucking along with a painful sinus infection, too busy and preoccupied (although clearly not with heating my home!) to even feel or let feel my own weakness.

But a little holy weakness may be just what our world needs–let us not forget that in all this bustle and brilliance and appearances, we are all on our way back toward dust. So in my dusty moments, let me be reminded of not just death but the hope and healing of the cross. I mean, you really don’t have the cross without a fragile, incarnate God made weak, and yet holy. And so if weakness begets sanctification, let me be bold in my weakness, heartfelt in cleaving to God and to others in this world that worships strong.

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Happy moment with Lucia.
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Praying without words

Somewhere around Thanksgiving I decided to try starting my day (again) with lectio and silence.  No matter how pressed I feel for time, when I get to my office or when I scoop up Lucia and head to the porch, I try to lend some space for breath and nothingness and silence.  Here I am in August and I’m still doing it, so there’s something.  But the reason I’ve been practicing some form of centering prayer for over a decade now is not because I’m good at it or because it’s easy, but because as with any discipline, it reminds me what a spiritual novice I really am.

Case in point: for several years after Lucia was born, because she needed and loved (and still loves) to be held, I struggled to find just ten minutes a day when my hands were free to sit in silence.  But in the last ten months, I’ve finally realized something: I’m much better at praying when I’m holding Lucia.  If I’m in my office alone, like I was this morning, I’m surrounded by my books and my responsibilities and distractions, and when an idea comes to me, my hands are instantly busied, trying to scratch down that idea on paper before it flees.  My eyes flutter open and my attention floats away from prayer to the day ahead of me.

But if I’m holding Lucia, I can’t use my hands.  When my eyes open or rest upon something, they often rest upon her, subtly bringing me back rather than away from the intention of it all.  Lucia’s voiceless expectation, the hopeful way her eyes dart and wander and peek up at me lead me back to the very present act of holding her, and being with one another–and our just being with God.

What I often count as an aberration, an intrusion from the true beauty and solace of our backyard view of nature–the screech of a large truck coming to a halt or a car horn blaring–Lucia accepts with diligent curiosity, reminding me just how fickle and narrow my own attempt at spirituality can be.

Indeed, it is only through this quiet discipline that I’ve come to realize that acceptance, such willful abiding in God’s presence, is anything but passive.  Rather it’s what I continue to yearn for after all these years, and that God has placed beside me a great spiritual teacher in my tender daughter is not so much a great irony, but a sweet revelation. I’ve always believed that you do not need words to pray, yet even my own beliefs can assert themselves so willfully that the prayer become secondary.  But I’ve never so palpably felt the resonance and profundity of that quiet as when I’m in God’s presence with Lucia alongside me.

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Morning prayer with Lucia on the porch.  My photo.

And would you believe it?  My second prayer word that I’ve been wrestling and striving toward all these years so ungracefully and confusedly is none other than abide.  And in leading me away from myself and toward attention to others, to my world, and to God, God continues to urge me to appreciate and learn from different ways of being.

Different ways of being that are good and perfect gifts.  Different ways of being that are of God.  Different ways of being that change us for the better, that lead us to learn from such wordless, sanctified offerings of pure, unadulterated delight that God has so generously made.

 

 

Why we can’t support this tax bill

I have something to admit.

On Saturday morning, after weeks of seeing proposed changes to this tax bill and fighting against the disastrous impacts it could have on people with disabilities, people who are sick, and people who are poor, I got lost in the numbers.  You see, as I started to comb through the final outline of the bill, I started to wonder whether it was really all that bad.  It does seem to be providing more generous tax cuts to many more people than initially forecasted.  It’s possible cutting taxes for corporations could create economic growth.  And they did remove some of the truly egregious aspects–taxes on graduate student tuition, while expanding medical expense deduction thresholds.

But then I scanned the text for the lectionary the following morning—Isaiah 61:1-4, which reads:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners; 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; 
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

And I was reminded that our God is a God of justice (by Isaiah, because he says so, in verse 8).

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Church under construction in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

So tax bills, especially for us Christians, aren’t a matter of crunching the numbers but of seeing the bigger picture, and we simply cannot support policies that cut taxes for the wealthiest among us while ignoring the plight of the poor.  Numbers aren’t just numbers.  They represent people.  And people who are struggling should be prioritized over tax cuts to those who are wealthy.

But that’s not what our government wants us to think.  

Our government wants us to believe that by helping the rich, we can all help ourselves, that not everybody needs or deserves health insurance, that Puerto Ricans aren’t entitled to the benefits of other citizens, and that poor children don’t deserve healthcare as much as rich ones.

But just stop for a moment and think about why you pay taxes and who you want those taxes to serve?  Our family moved to a high-tax district but one that we knew would support Lucia’s special needs at school in spite of the cost, and I’m so thankful that those who live around us are willing to pay more so children can get a good education.  Our family also benefits from services through the Medicaid program that is funded by federal and state tax dollars to support people with disabilities, people who are poor, and people who are old, especially those who have substantial medical need for daily living.  Many elderly people who are sick and disabled benefit from the substantial Medicare program that threatens to be cut to support this bill.

So here we are again, cutting benefits for people who really need them, so rich people and corporations can get a tax break.  For a moment, I accepted that there could be some breaks for all because that’s what the government is saying, but that’s not only fuzzy math, it’s fuzzy morals.  Our taxes can’t pay for the things people really need and give huge breaks to the wealthy, and what’s more, they shouldn’t bother with making the rich richer, ever, because it’s wrong.  The Old Testament prophets and Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in this season, make it clear that Christians are called to liberate those who are oppressed and to bring good news.  This tax bill is not good news and we cannot ignore our responsibility, as unpopular as it may be, to speak otherwise.  We cannot turn mourning into gladness unless justice is justice for all.

Wake up, American Christians, it’s almost Christmas, and we have work to do.

Some Easter thoughts from China

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.  Look, there is the place they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.  –Mark 16:1-8

Easter is generally quite quiet and unassuming in China.  I’ll be up on Easter morning, right around sunrise, getting into a taxi to head to the airport to travel to several provinces and visit foster care projects.  Often the rhythm of my life here in China couldn’t be more different from my previous experiences helping to pastor during the bustle of Holy Week, and I’m left to wonder what Easter means in a foreign land.

But then again, that early morning was no doubt a strange, foreign experience for Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome as they ventured out in the early sunlight to anoint their messiah.  For some reason as my friend and I read through this scripture the other morning, my mind was drawn to their preoccupations over, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  I think about how they must have felt, powerless and hopeless as they walked to the tomb, knowing not even how to move the stone when they arrived.

A week or so ago when we traveled into the countryside to visit foster families, a friend of mine and I got to talking about what we do in America versus what they do in China when someone dies.  It was difficult to explain to her the sterilized world of funeral parlors, embalming, and even cremation.

“I was the one who helped prepare and clean my grandmother’s body before she was buried,” she stammered.  Chinese people are particularly fearful of the dead and of evil spirits, but it perplexed my friend that anyone other than the family would attend to such an intimate practice as preparing a loved one for life in the spirit world.  “I wasn’t afraid, I didn’t even cry,” she remarked proudly.

I think about how the women, despite their own fears and misgivings, not even knowing how to move the stone, went to the tomb anyway.  And I think of how when they arrived the angel told them plainly that their Jesus has been raised, and was going before them to Galilee.

And I think of how difficult it really is to trust that God is going ahead of us.

A woman honors her ancestors during the tomb sweeping festival in China. Photo from The Telegraph.

Another one of my friends talked through her tears earlier this week about tomb sweeping traditions in China where one prays to the ancestors and conflicts between these and her Christian faith.  Many extreme voices from the Christian foreign and local communities, not unlike those centuries before them, stress that believers today need to take a stand against these traditions and their families, and refuse to participate.

But my friend, in her deep faith and wisdom, knows there must be another way.  So she will make the trip home today to her family, to sweep the graves and honor her ancestors and her very much living family, and carry the promise of the resurrection in her heart.  And rather than risking that the promise of grace become confused with rejection, anger, and bitterness, she will wait and pray, and when the time is right, she will share the way in which her faith makes her life full and complete and meaningful with her loved ones.

I pray that she will trust that God is indeed going before her this weekend.  It seems to me that not just my friend or Chinese Christians or the women who brought spices, but all of us wonder and worry who will roll the stone away from the tomb for us.  We all struggle to trust that God has truly gone ahead of us and died for us and been raised, and that no mistake on our part, not even the terror or the muteness that supposedly plagued the women that fateful morning can change that.  The promise has been–and is fulfilled, in the resurrection of our Lord.

That is why we proclaim, Jesus is risen, He is risen indeed, from wherever we find ourselves this Sunday, from the tombs of the Chinese countryside to the sanctuaries of the United States.  And we give thanks that God has done what God promised, and that we, the weak, afraid, mute, and hopeless, are the recipients of such grace that flowed out from that empty tomb on a quiet morning in another land years ago.

P.s.  If you’re looking for more Easter reflection, Rachel Held Evans is doing a wonderful series on Women of the Passion on her blog.

Living with Uncertainty

My husband and I got to talking a few weeks ago (feverishly, giddily, and dork-ily [a new adjective!], which is ever the case when we discuss theology), about the element of uncertainty intrinsic to the spiritual life.  As Christians we are told that we are not of the world, but we are called to live in it, but we rarely reflect on what types of feelings this engenders in our daily lives.

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Minority Christians fellowship over tea in the mountains of Yunnan. All photos by Evan Schneider.

Some Chinese brothers and sisters of mine have been struggling with the apparent tension in becoming and living as “a new creation,” “putting on the clothing of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17 & Romans 13:14) while also “regarding others better than ourselves,” “refusing to judge others,” and “bearing with one another in grace and mercy” (Phil 2:3, Matt 7:1, & Eph 4:1-3).

I can certainly relate!  

Living the spiritual life is incredibly tricky: we long to don the clothes of righteousness, and yet we can only do so in all humility, with a contrite spirit, a pure heart.

There is no easy harmony to this life.  

In fact I would say that it is important, natural, and instructive to feel a palpable uncertainty as a Christian today.  When we feel we’ve got it all together, we often fail to see how much we have to learn, but when we feel the uncertainty and the conflict of our call in this world, we often find ourselves relying on God’s grace, opening our hearts to God’s slow work and wisdom.

Incense burning at a temple in Kunming, China.
Incense burning at a temple in Kunming, China.

 It’s a myth, in fact, that when one becomes a Christian, he or she will be rid of this uncertainty, disappointment, failure, frustration, or fear.  But when we’ve stopped believing this myth, stopped fighting it, and wrestling against God, we can often learn to embrace an element of uncertainty, and live confidently among it.

A recent post on Zen Habits (albeit a secular reflection) talks about turning fear into fuel, by reframing negativity, singletasking, and practicing mindfulness.

The thing about uncertainty then, is that it forces us to dig deeper, to simplify, to boldly trust in God, and to err on the side of grace.  We face our failures and see they’ve got nothing on God’s unconditional love and grace.  We name our weaknesses, becoming vulnerable with others, and God can use us to love one another because we’re not standing in our own way.  We commit to serve God each day with our lives, and we don’t dwell on our own insufficiencies, but rely on God’s sufficiency, and we really believe it.

As I mentioned awhile back, an attitude that God only gives us challenges we can handle tends to limit God’s vision, which surpasses our own, and it also suggests that we’re not gonna need God for the long haul.  Instead, I like to think living in uncertainty is a reason to give God praise– it’s never boring, it’s always interesting and challenging, and while at times painful– it’s all for God’s glory, and I can definitely get behind that kind of purpose for my life.

Water lilies.
Water lilies.

Further Reflection:  Read Matthew 16:13-27 and reflect on Peter’s struggle to live with uncertainty.  Where is God calling you to embrace uncertainty in your life?  What does it mean that those “who save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (v. 25)?  

Transform Me

Looking back at my sermon the other day got me pondering transformation and God’s transforming power in our lives. I’ve also, like many of you, have recently faced the complexity of being a Christian in today’s world. Some of my friends have blogged really poignantly about how we as Christians are called uniquely, for instance, to react to the death of Osama bin laden, and how we can show light to others in a powerful, genuine way.

But when I turned to Romans this afternoon, I was refreshed to find that “the marks of a true Christian,” while exceedingly difficult to live out, are remarkably clean and clear cut. In short, the transformation Christ enacts within us should be clearly exhibited in our daily lives:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:9-21

And yet, the marks of that transformation are rather unexpected, totally countercultural, and have a lot more to do with blessing those who persecute us, patiently trusting in God’s slow work despite suffering, rejoicing and weeping with those in need, hanging out with the lowly, and choosing peace, nonviolence, and love above all else. To me, when the world looks at America and sees us rejoicing in the death of those who persecute us, we are not showing the truth of this transformation. We need to go further, we need to go beyond our first reaction, what is comfortable for us, as Americans, and become Christians first, the kind who bless their enemy rather than curse them.

This is hard stuff.

And so today I pray, as I must everyday, God, truly transform me, from the person I am, to the person you have called me to be. Make your transformation complete. Make your light show in me, and help me to humbly live because you live in me.