Tag Archives: communion

Faith Begins by Letting Go

A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon on the trust psalms, particularly Psalm 27, entitled, “Trust, Perseverance, and Doggedness.”  When I went hunting for a closing hymn for the service, I stumbled upon a relatively new one entitled, “Faith Begins by Letting Go.”

While I ended up selecting it for the service, I felt a bit puzzled by the title, the lyrics, and the sentiment.  The first stanza is as follows:

Faith begins by letting go 
Giving up what had seemed sure 
Taking risks and pressing on 
Though the way feels less secure 
Pilgrimage both right and odd 
Trusting all our life to God

I wasn’t sure I believed that faith begins by letting go of our foundation, taking risks, and that one’s pilgrimage should feel “both right and odd.”  Still, something about the hymn seemed to resonate with the content of my sermon, especially the ode to one of the great contemporary spiritual writers, Anne Lamott, on perfectionism and they way in which our writing cramps up around our wounds as in life.

These past few weeks I’ve encountered my own cramps and struggles to write, and am starting to believe in this whole wisdom of letting go.

You see I was having a lot of trouble getting my thoughts to find substance and clarity on the page, writing and rewriting pages and pages of an article on my research with foster mothers in China.  I kept thinking that despite my frustrations, I needed to have faith that these meanderings, however seemingly futile, had some semblance of progress and that I would eventually find my way if I kept at it.

However, this morning during my prayer time I realized that in the writing process, I’d started to lose the joy and excitement that is so genuine to my work with families in China. And I decided to give myself the freedom to reflect freely on what I learned and what I love about the families I worked with.  In a away, I decided to free myself from the burden of writing something smart and relevant and pertinent to the academy and instead tap back into what these families, this culture, and these people taught me about God and life.

And suddenly I was at no lack for thoughts, ideas, and even words on the page.  

I recalled, rather crudely, what these foster mothers had taught me about my own neediness for God and for others, and that true kinship, true family, is not about blood, choice, or even love, but our deep need for one another.

I love that as I yielded to venture away from what I think I know or how I think I should say it, God let me back to my own need for God and others, and this great sense of unity that in my deepest being I have for my vocation as both a scholar and a minister.

I’m so thankful for the wisdom of letting go today–not only because it’s getting me closer to getting this article down on the page, but because it’s taking me to a revelation that I couldn’t have found on my own, by my own strength, might, or wisdom.  It’s making clear my need to rely on God and others for insight, faith, encouragement, grace, and communion.

And despite how scary that is, it’s an an amazing place to be.

Holy everything

Nearly a week has passed since Christ rose from the grave, since we celebrated Easter with trumpets and sunrise, communion and hallelujahs, feast and fanfare, and I still feel resoundingly full.

It’s not just the ham that’s still in the refrigerator or the earnest celebration of new life that felt so different from the traditions of revering the ancestors and sweeping the ancestors this time of year in China.  In fact, it’s the same story, from my youth, of Jesus riding in triumphantly on the donkey, of black Friday, of brutal death on a cross, and an empty tomb.

Nothing has changed in the Biblical story, so how do I account for what feels so different, so breathless, so heavy, so alive about Easter this year?

First signs of spring on the university campus.
First signs of spring on the Princeton University campus.

Last Sunday as the pastor stood in the pulpit, she reminded us that for Christians, we have no tomb, no cross, no holy place, hill, mount, or edifice to go to pay homage to Jesus, but that we ourselves are the embodiment of the resurrection, the Living Stones (1 Peter 2), the Easter people.  There are no holy places and so in resurrection, we are made holy people.

But our pastor also stepped off a white-cloaked altar into the sea of faces dressed in their best that morning and invited us to share our joys and concerns like we do on ordinary Sundays.  We were reminded that in earnest celebration there is still loss, and fear, and pain.

I think it’s this fact that accounts for the fullness of this season for me, the fact that the communion we take symbolizes not only life, resurrection, and the miraculous, but human brokenness, betrayal, and violence.  Likewise, the Easter story we celebrate leaves the women and the disciples not only full of hope and promise, foreshadowing the incredible growth of the church in history, but also anguished by the death of their savior, and bewildered and fearful at the sight of an empty tomb, a dwindling faithful, and an impossible truth.

This Easter I’m reminded that God doesn’t change, but the resurrection changes us, often and endlessly.  

C.S. Lewis wrote, “I pray because I can’t help myself.  I pray because I’m helpless.  I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping.  It doesn’t change God.  It changes me.”

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We don’t become Easter people in a flash, jubilant and freed from this world, but we become Easter people when holiness leaves the altar, the cross, the tomb, and steps firmly into our midst and settles into our bodies and life rhythms.  Our circumstances don’t necessarily change, we still look like the flawed people that we are, but we become Easter people when our hearts, our eyes look upon this world and find everything holy.  We become Easter people when we behold what is holy in one another as though we are making a pilgrimage to somewhere sacred, because the Kingdom of God is here, in you and in me.  We become Easter people when we stop parsing what’s God and what isn’t and relish that the Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.  We become Easter people when death is always with us, and yet, we experience life anew.

We become Easter people each time spring and hope return to a desperate world, and we’re left full, changed, and holy.

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.

Fallen limbs and crevices

It hasn’t been a particularly harsh winter here in New Jersey.  I suppose it never is when you grow up in Wisconsin.

I hadn’t been out to one of my sacred spacesthe Delaware Raritan Canal pathmuch since Hurricane Sandy passed through these parts in October.  When my husband and I walked the canal path on New Year’s Day, I kept thinking of a friend of ours who took a walk with his toddler through the streets the morning after the storm.  When his son asked what had happened to the trees and if someone was going to fix them, he didn’t have the heart to tell him that the uprooted trees, the cracked bows, and the bare stumps were now a permanent part of the scenery, and that trees are breakable, fragile, and mortal, just like you and me.

Some local damage after Sandy.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
Some local damage after Sandy. All photos by Evan Schneider.

As I run on these slightly colder days down the path and my eye takes in these changes to the scenery, I think of how hard it is for we as humans to accept such destruction, and what kind of fear it drives into our hearts.  Suddenly as we look at the world around us, we feel everything’s brittle, nothing is for certain.  The bare insides of great trees are marked by great scars, and some of the loftiest, burliest ones plummeted in the storm.

If we can hardly trust that the same tree bows that framed these lovely paths won’t crumble above us, in what can we trust?  Is there no permanence on this earth?

Snow in Princeton, NJ this winter.
Snow in Princeton, NJ this winter.

My generation’s experience of such vulnerability is marked not only by storms (we’ve seen some of the greatest destruction done by tsunamis and earthquakes in our time), but also a terrorist attack on our own soil.  Shortly after 9/11, I read an essay by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in which he preached the scary truth that what the attacks taught is that not even the steel towers we stretch to the sky can protect us from destruction, heartache, and pain.

Waskow reminds us,

There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is in fact one interwoven web of life. The command to love my neighbor as I do myself is not an admonition to be nice: it is a statement of truth like the law of gravity. However much and in whatever way I love my neighbor, that will turn out to be the way I love myself. If I pour contempt upon my neighbor, hatred will recoil upon me. 

When my husband and I walked that path on the first day of a new year, I grimaced at the branches laid bare and broken around us.  He remarked that animals and insects had found new homes in their fallen limbs and crevices.  Yesterday when I ran along the canal waters, the geese jubilantly honked at me and took to flight, their bulbous, awkward bodies somehow capable of both buoyancy and soaring into the skies.  Later a bluebird fluttered alongside me and took shelter in one of the tattered trees.

Fall on the D&R Canal, Princeton, NJ.
Fall on the D&R Canal, Princeton, NJ.

Life buzzes amidst the changed landscape with an audacious, oblivious vigor.  Where we see scars and imperfections, animals and insects make their homes.  Death will eventually give birth to new life, and yet, how we remove ourselves from this interdependence!  How we seek to believe that if we just build bigger, better towers, stronger, sleeker fortresses, we can insulate ourselves from the pain, the destruction–the humanity of it all!  

When we let fear drive how we live, we seal ourselves off from one another, from the fragility, yet also the incredible resilience of interconnectedness.  We forget that the lessons from nature, the way she rebuilds with the scarred timber, the tattered landscape something even more beautiful, are demonstrative of the fact that we need one another more than we know.

Summer on the D&R Canal.
Summer on the D&R Canal.

What if we accepted the fact that we can’t do anything to protect ourselves from storms and began to worship vulnerability rather than permanence?  What if we found salvation in the new life springing from brokenness and accepted brokenness as our common bond?  What if we found our strength in a God who offers us not permanence or immortality or insulation, but deep vulnerability, interconnection, and communion?

Neediness

I’ve all but reached the grand finale in the book of Luke.  I know the events leading up to Jesus’s final hours, how he taught in the temple, and slept on the Mount of Olives, all too well, and yet things are remarkably not as the seem (21:34-38).

Wa church members worshiping in Yunnan.

The wonderful thing about scripture is that our own context always alters its meaning, lifting certain moments out of obscurity.

That…and the Holy Spirit, of course.

And so this morning as I find myself lamenting the divisions of my Church in America, as well as the fledging churches in China, I am humbled to see how Jesus surrounded himself with (unlikely) broken beings.  I think of Peter in his denial, Judas in his betrayal, and what rings true is not the prowess of Jesus’s twelve, but rather their inability to understand, their fears, their selfishness-in short, their humanity.

Rural church in the mountains of Yunnan.

The other morning as my friend and I reflected on the passage about the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (Luke 8), she remarked wisely that Jesus responds to people with authentic need.  How true that is, I think, for all throughout scripture we see people who in humbling themselves before Jesus, their hearts have already been cured in that they’ve found their way to humility, servanthood, and faith.  Therefore, they are freed of their burdens, cured of their disease, and fully healed.

Meanwhile we who feel we have bigger fish to fry, we who, like the disciples, no sooner have we received Jesus’ sweet communion do we start to quibble about who among us is greatest (Luke 22:14-30) and who shall be saved, we mistakenly see ourselves as without need.  Jesus famously says in the fifth chapter of Luke that those who are well have no need of healing, and that he’s come to call not the righteous but the sinners to repentance (5:31).

Surely Jesus was being sarcastic about those healthy, righteous people, right?  Oh, what I wouldn’t give to hear the tone of some of these one-liners!

Context, my friends.  And thank God for the Holy Spirit.

Mandarin Bible with Dai translation notes.

As I read about that Holy meal this morning in modern China, that famous last supper, what strikes me today is not only the communion Jesus offers to all of us so greatly in need, but how that last meal is tainted with the foreshadowing of betrayal.  We will all succumb to the lie in life that we’re healthy, shiny got-it-all-together disciples, and only when that lie comes apart at the seams do we find ourselves crawling back to Jesus.

So today I’m praying that God would make me ever aware of my own fragility, that I’ll stick to a life of groveling, crawling, and humbling myself–in short, the life where I belong.  And that the humanity of others would only make me see myself more clearly, more accurately, and that would only make me cling, in my neediness to Jesus.

Sounds like another job for the Holy Spirit!

Inside a Wa church in Yunnan province. All photos by Evan Schneider.

When Nothing Happens

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Friends who are new to faith often ask me, “What happens if there’s no answer when you pray?”

Similarly, J. David Muyskens talks about the times when Centering Prayer is difficult and even dull, asking if these moments are all for nothing. The art of spiritual discipline, however, is created precisely for these moments, and the aim of such intentional prayer and meditation, is communion, harmony, or the relationship we desire with God, rather then the results or the expectations we ourselves seek in life.

As Muyskens puts it,

And, of course, it is not true that nothing happens. Nothing happens according to my agenda. Actually, in Centering Prayer I have consented to yield to God’s agenda. Perhaps in God’s agenda I am being given some rest. Perhaps in God’s agenda I am just to be. Perhaps God’s agenda is to love me. Maybe I am getting in best when nothing happens. Maybe I am on to something when there is no reward for me. Maybe the closest I can be to awareness of holy is just to be with the mysterious attraction that the Creator put in me. And, maybe when I don’t even sense that, still the transforming work of Christ goes on, unknown to me. Maybe that’s just the point: no effort on my part, only divine action.

Sacred Breath, p. 87

It is my experience that we human beings rarely know what we feel or need, and so we wander toward God and we seek answers to our questions, our prayers, and our dilemmas. My own pleas usually begin with my circumstances, with ideas, people, and processes, but those thoughts that cloud my head are merely distractions from the communion God seeks with me. Those thoughts are even distractions from the harmony, I myself, seek with God.

The point is to trust God enough to leave God “the thoughts, the stuff,” and continue to enter into communion with God, simply because we desire to be in God’s presence. Now that act, then of practicing prayer in this way, is not “nothing,” but quite something.

It’s quite something because it begins with God and not with ourselves, and it keeps us coming back despite the challenges of life itself, our circumstances, and our questions.

I’m not saying the questions aren’t important, but they pale in comparison to what it means to know God and be known by God.

The Silent Witness

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I’m fairly certain that ever since I was exposed to the use of the word witness as a verb (probably somewhere between InterVarsity meetings and YouthWorks training), I became uncomfortable with what it seemed to imply.

The crux of the matter, I realize now, is that many versions of “witnessing” seemed to involve very little to no, listening or noticing, despite these being primary meanings of the term.  Returning to practicing disciplined Centering Prayer recently has been difficult precisely because listening, noticing, and being silent are things that do not come naturally to me, or to others, I might presume.

But they are so necessary to communion with God and with others:

how can we tell others about who we know God to be if we do not first engage in contemplation, and with intention, noticing and listening for God in and around us?  This terrific challenge, to be silent before God, implies a sort of witnessing that I can get behind.  This kind of awe-inspiring humility that I feel when I enter God’s presence is the type I hope to impart as I live, imperfectly, yet boldly in the truth that I am forgiven, that I am blessed, so blessed, to be a witness.