Tag Archives: control

Why I prefer the (next) faithful thing to the next best thing

There is this phrase going around in Christian, perhaps primarily evangelical circles, that urges, just do the next right thing.

67495742_10157228724566153_6872629117406150656_n
Lucia grins at mommy from her wheelchair post spit up…All photos mine.

Somehow, the phrase always feels a bit off to me, like it’s mocking me. Maybe the people who wrote it never had a kid with disabilities who’d throw up her food inexplicably every couple days and then grin at you as if nothing had happened (see above photo). Maybe they have a bit more control over their choices than I do. Or at least they feel like they do. Or they know right when they see it.

But I don’t.

It feels downright audacious to say that I know what’s right for me or for my kid anymore than I know what tomorrow may bring. And as I’ve grown older I’ve started to trust that maybe it’s not so much about getting it right by God as being faithful. Being faithful the best we can, and trusting and relying deeply on God for all of it, all the things.

So this morning after this little marvel spit up her breakfast and then looked around and smiled unfazed, we took a walk. We went walking past that old barn they’re refurbishing down the road, I picked a flower, I ran part of the way just to see the wind in her hair. I really think the right thing may have been to cradle her in my arms on the couch rather than expose her to the bugs and the heat and the Earth.

67322766_10157228724601153_350472578348875776_n
Refurbished barn down the road.
67299618_10157228724661153_2934647653234900992_n
Lucia holds the flower mommy picked for her on the walk.

But the faithful thing, savoring life with Lucia, has always reminded me of the extravagance that is God and the gifts God gives. And because God’s faithfulness is extravagant, it’s not just right, it’s also wild and free. So maybe we Christians, especially American Christians, have to be reminded that faithfulness is less self-reliance and more risky reliance on God. I wonder what our world would look like if we exchanged more risks for God for “right” steps.

A walk seems pretty tame in that light. But Lucia’s been a pretty good companion for such a journey, and maybe we’re just getting started…

Advertisements

Our preparations are not our own

I was really humbled to preach the first sermon in Advent at chapel yesterday at the seminary.  For those of you who have been asking, here is a transcript of the sermon.  

Blessings on your Advent preparations!

007-zechariah-elizabeth
Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John.  Photo credit: Sweet Publishing/FreeBibleimages.org.

As begin our journey in Advent this morning, we recall that the narrative of Jesus’s birth in Luke is intertwined with the parallel story of John the Baptist’s birth and his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth.   In verses 5-20 of chapter 1, we are plunged into what Joel Green calls “the small town struggles of a little-known priest and his wife…the atmosphere is permeated by the piety of Second Temple Judaism and Jewish hopes for divine intervention.”

Now we’re living in a very different context than Zechariah and Elizabeth, but they feel like people we seminarians can relate to. They’re pretty faithful people. They’re really faithful people. Zechariah is a priest who’s given the honor of entering the sanctuary and offering incense in conjunction with sacrifices. The scripture tells us that he and his wife Elizabeth “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

But in placing their childlessness directly after their high religious and social status, the scripture isn’t just showing us their social disgrace but reminding us of their suffering. For Zechariah and Elizabeth who scripture tells us are “both getting on in years” we can only imagine that if they have been struggling to conceive for quite some time, they have likely known the pain of losing children, carrying hope and letting go of it.

And so when the angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah, fear overwhelms him and though he’s told he and his wife will rejoice at the birth of a son John who will be great in the sight of the Lord, he doesn’t believe it. “How will I know this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” We’ve been prepared for years for this, Zechariah thinks. We’re in the temple everyday, we’re faithful, we’ve prayed and yet our prayers have gone unanswered. How will we know this time will be any different?

I find some solace in this beginning to Advent, this hard place, this small story in which God comes close and carries out God’s very plans amidst our lives. But I struggle to believe, too. You see, I have been pregnant during Advent, filled with the expectation of a child, of hope, of new life, but I have also miscarried in this season. And a few years ago, during Advent, even after having a child, my husband and I were still waiting. Following our daughter’s seizures and hospitalizations, around 10 months they did some blood tests, they sent them away, and we waited for a diagnosis.

And when we got our daughter Lucia’s diagnosis, a progressive, genetic disease of the brain, I remember wanting to be prepared. I googled the symptoms, the treatments, the prognosis. “Death in early childhood” it read. And so I remember wanting to be prepared for when, for how, for what that would look like, so I googled a lot more. We got a diagnosis and now I wanted a prognosis. I remember wanting to be prepared.

But for what? So I could hold back just a little bit, so I could love her…just a little less? What?

Now I would be lying if I told you that as a parent of a child with disability and a scholar of disability that I wasn’t pretty uncomfortable with a text this morning that seems to use muteness, disability, as a punishment for doubt and disbelief.

But my own experience also makes me wonder if there’s more to what God is communicating here. Because I remember that feeling of seeing the beautiful child God had put before me and yet wanting even more reassurance that things would be okay. Maybe that’s where Zechariah was, too, after all that waiting, even with the angel’s proclamation, he just wanted reassurance that things would really be okay. Even the good news wasn’t good enough to overcome all his fears, his plans, his googling. Maybe for Zechariah and for me and for you, we have been tempted to continue doggedly on with our own plans, because at least it gives us some control. When we begin the story, Zechariah and Elizabeth are seemingly in control of their lives and where we end our lesson this morning, perhaps the problem is that Zechariah is still struggling for it. He’d rather cling to control than experience what God has in store.

And so silence that looks like a curse of Zechariah’s unfaithfulness may be the very reminder in this Advent season that God is active in our smalltown lives even when we don’t believe it to be so. That loss and heartache and suffering and pain are the very places where God seeks to meet us, but where we often try to control that God who wants to break into our lives and our world with radical, reckless love. The best thing that God did for me in that Advent season was not to give me a clear prognosis, a healthy child or a new computer where I could google my future to death, but like Zechariah, God invited me to lay beside my plans and just love the person in front of me. God gives us life to go on living, not always in the form of children, but always in the people beside us and the ordinary circumstances of our lives—reoriented, shifted, rerouted toward the extraordinary love of Jesus Christ, our savior.

That son who will be born to Zechariah, John, will go onto urge us to “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” But make no mistake this Advent, we are but participants in the saving work of God, Jesus, and the Spirit. Thank God that our preparations are not our own.

How it feels to be free

As we roll Lucia away from the face painting station on Saturday, a bright blue and yellow seahorse on her flushed cheek, I overhear the student ask the next little girl who’s climbed up into the chair how old she is.  “Four,” she replies effortlessly.  “Oh, you must be in preschool then?” the woman asks.

Lucia is four.  Lucia is in preschool.  But she doesn’t climb up on chairs or talk.  I rather marvel at the young girl’s speech and motor-skills until I remember that my kid is the one people sometimes describe as “really disabled,” that my kid is the one who’s developmentally behind, delayed, atypical.  It’s only in brief dissonant moments like these that I sense that my kid might be “other” to someone else or that our life might be considered atypical, because of course, to me, she’s just another four year-old with face paint, and we’re her parents.

31143830_10156170337306153_3769072464982704128_n
Face paint, complete with a smile.  My photo.

But I’ve often felt like I’ve glimpsed something other-worldly in my daughter when she laughs, because the giggles tumble so uncontrollably out of her taut little body, erupting out of her, they seem to send ripples throughout the room.  When we’re in public, I love to catch people, especially otherwise grouchy looking people, finding those giggles downright contagious, moved by the pure joy of the sound of her laughs, the generous, inclusive flash of her wide smile.  She lacks words, but in these moments words are obliterated, unnecessary.  She can’t really move on her own from her wheelchair and yet when Lucia laughs with true abandon, completely undeterred by anyone else around her, it strikes me that she is uniquely, utterly free.

Earlier that Saturday morning when Lucia and I sit there lazily in the living room, still in a stupor from a sleep study we completed the night before at a hospital an hour away from home, my husband says something astounding.  He reminds me, the anthropologist, that the oppressing milestones of developmentalism inflict not just stress, but moral judgment on many a parent.  Feeling as though it is up to you to usher your child through life’s varied stages with utmost precision is constraining and exhausting.  And by that yardstick, our four year adventure in parenting is one colossal failure.

 

IMG_2691
Lucia at her sleep study.  My photo.

But then, we’ve also been set free.  

We live life and we parent simply for the joy of it all.  We don’t worry if we’re doing it right, because all we can do is seek comfort and happiness for our girl.  We’re hurt when she hurts, of course, and there are times we wish we could fix things that we can’t.  That pain that she feels and that hopelessness that we often feel are not to be understated. And yet, because of all the things we can’t do as parents and perhaps some of the things Lucia can’t do herself, we’re also very free.

We can’t hardly do anything but love her, and so we do, one joy-filled day at a time.

And it’s weird, precisely because Lucia does so little, I feel like it’s easier not to get lost in what she does, but to get to know her for who she is–a generous, patient, gregarious little soul–and it reminds me that none of us are the sum of our accomplishments anyway.  So why do we let ourselves treat our kids that way?  As if life is mostly gain and growth, when they’re all we’ve ever wanted, just as they are.  Maybe it’s because deep down we’re not sure we’re really enough just as we are as people and parents.  We could always be doing more, right?  We are our own enemies of freedom, our own robbers of joy.

But before you say that we’re extraordinary or that Lucia’s extraordinary (okay, well that may be true!), let me tell you something else: there’s little in life that we actually control and when it comes down to it control is not at all what it’s cracked up to be.  What’s extraordinary is that in a world of such chance and circumstance and chaos, we three get to live life together.  We get granted these moments of joy and freedom that are other-worldly and grace-filled.

Now as a Christian, I tend to think joy is a gift from God, but whether you’re a person of faith or not, you may be able to agree that joy seems to come from elsewhere and only deigns to nestle itself between people with audacious graciousness–it’s always granted, never earned.  That’s the one thing I guess we’ve come to understand about parenting, too.  Its freedom is granted, but it also requires our willingness to let go of all the things we think are so important to receive it.  I’m sure it may look like many of those things have been stripped from us, wrested from our control in becoming Lucia’s parents, but I just don’t see it that way.

30710482_10156150073911153_2205416915667517440_n
Lucia smiling outside during spring.  My photo.

Because when Lucia’s gone, I doubt I’ll remember or cherish how well she stood in her stander, how efficiently she swallowed bites of puree, or even mimicked the sounds of our voices, but I’ll never forget the sound of her laughter.  I’ll pine for it, like I pine for nothing else.  And I’ll pine for the way that laughter bid me to laugh alongside her, when I wouldn’t have had the courage to laugh with such abandon on my own.  Without Lucia, I wouldn’t be a parent.  Learning to love Lucia, I, too, have been set free.

 

Why I’m grateful my child was born different

“No parent wants their child to be different,” she said passionately yet nonchalantly, looking innocently into the camera in this week’s premiere episode of a new season of the reality tv show, Little People, Big World.  She was talking about the possibility that their baby would be born with dwarfism, while meanwhile her husband, a little person, shifted uncomfortably in his chair, trying to parse the divide, forgive her somehow for saying that his very difference, one she presumably accepted and loved, was so naturally undesired, bad–something to be feared.

I don’t mean to pick on her specifically.

I think many of us bristle at the presentation of disease and disability as unwanted variations and aberrations in nature’s otherwise rather painstaking track record for miracles, successes, and beauty.  But what if I told you there were all sorts of dormant mutations in your own genetic material?  What if I told you that nature “makes mistakes” all the time and it’s just that some of these variations are visible while others are less so?  What if I told you that Lucia, my own daughter, was the result of one of those presumed “mistakes,” so rare, so different, yet so deeply loved and wanted?  Might that change your mindset that difference is always something to be naturally avoided or eschewed at all costs?

construction-of-baby-heads
Image Credit.

Underneath the reality tv star’s seemingly innocent words ran a subtle, yet deep vein of privilege and conceit.  Anyone who cared would prevent difference if they could, she presumed.  But different to whom, I wondered.  Black kids are born into a pretty inhospitable world, but it’s not their blackness that’s a problem but the normative white culture that devalues their lives.  Gay and transgender kids aren’t really all that different than any other kids and yet their difference is targeted as an assault on heteronormative culture that reproduces itself through fear and exclusion.  As long as difference remains the much feared, undesirable cultural alternative to healthy and white and straight and male, we desecrate the true variety and value of human life that God has made because we play God ourselves–even if it is ever so subtly with our wishing away of certain babies like mine.

The day after legislation that devalues the life of people like my daughter, people who are poor, people who are sick, people who are women, people who are victims of rape, and people who are old passed through the House, I still have the audacity to dream differently.  And I have my daughter to thank for that.  I don’t want to live in a world that she is not in, because I would not know the fullness of what God has given and imagined for human beings.

And yet, this world, this country specifically, is becoming extremely inhospitable toward my daughter month by month.  As a parent of a child with special needs, I want to live in a country that accepts and loves and cherishes children who are different– not with asterisks or snide comments or fearful glances or knowing pity or minimal health care or scant education–but full stop.  Don’t tell me how expensive my child’s medical expenses are or how arduous her special education is, how different her needs are from a typical child, how wildly incompatible they are with this cutthroat ability-obssessed culture we live in, because I really do know.  I know this isn’t easy because I’m living it alongside her.

But I made peace with Lucia’s challenges years ago; we’ve gone on living this incredibly full life and we’ve been buoyed by our church, friends, family, and the incredible array of services NJ Medicaid provides.  Our family has found refuge in a state that truly values her life, but for how long?  How long will you continue to live by the conceit or the privilege that your life is somehow any different from ours?  How long will you fear rather than embrace difference, support legislation that carves us off from one another by our differences, asserts hierarchy in nature when you know not what mutation, future, or controversy may come–legislation that makes health the luxury and priority of the rich?

Control over the progression of my daughter’s disease is a true illusion, but the choice to value her life and give her every chance possible–that’s firmly in your hands and mine.

And God knows, I’m still so very grateful that my child was born different.

*If you want to learn more, read this piece on “5 Things to Watch as GOP Health Bill Moves to the Senate,” and if you want to act on behalf of families like ours and kids like mine, call your Senator and tell them our story!

On big plans

The woods beside the D&R Canal.  My photo.
The sunny summer woods beside the D&R Canal. My photo.

It’s been quite awhile since I posted anything and to be honest, I’m not sure how much life this blog has left.  It’s been such a joy over the years to write about faith and anthropology and China and life and share, but when that doesn’t come easily or isn’t one of my first impulses, it makes me wonder if there is a new chapter on the horizon.

Lately, life has simply gotten in the way, and blogs that feel they have to make apologies for that have always been (for me) some of the most arduous reads!  So I will be praying and thinking about what this blog may or may not become and be faithful to you by giving an answer sometime in the near future.

For the moment, great changes are in the mix for our family and all in the span of a few weeks: a surgery for my daughter and recovery, packing and moving to a new apartment, my graduation from Ph.D. program, and a trip to the beach with my family.  Sometimes in the midst of all these things when I feel particularly out of control, I’m tempted to cry out, “God, what are you doing?  I’ve got big plans here!”

And then I realize how righteous and petulant and silly that must sound to God.  Sure, I have plans, but God has the present, the future, and everything between in God’s hands.  I’m still working to trust God with the big things rather than struggling to swim upstream and wrest control from God.  And to trust and believe that God’s plans include the impossible, the not-yet-dreamed, and goodness beyond my wildest imagination.

Where are you struggling to trust God these days?  What are you learning?

The God of silence

“One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless.  We are so accustomed to relying on words to manage and control others.  If we are silent, who will take control?  God will take control, but we will never let him take control unless we trust him.  Silence is intimately related to trust.”

—Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p. 100-101

Have you ever doubted whether God was really there because God’s silence seemed to indicate otherwise?  Have you ever cried out to God, wondering how God could remain silent in the face of hardship, pain, or injustice?

Conversely, have you ever sat in a car or beside a friend or a family member in complete silence and felt deep companionship and comfort, but hardly any need to speak?  Why is it that we can trust others with such deep, holy silences, and yet when we encounter silence in our spiritual lives, we assume that God is woefully absent?

Merrill Creek Reservoir.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Merrill Creek Reservoir. Photo by Evan Schneider.

One compelling aspect for me of adopting the discipline of centering prayer has been this reframing of the concept and experience of silence as the presence, rather than the absence of God in our lives.  As Foster writes above, in the silence, God takes control from our greedy grasp, but God cannot do so if we refuse to trust God.

During this time of Lent, I invite you to reflect on where God has been silent in your life, and how you might cede some control and trust to God in those areas.  As you do so, imagine God’s hands, busily, yet quietly working.  Believe that silence does not indicate God’s absence, but rather God’s presence, God’s faithful accompaniment to you, in deep, holy, silent communion.  Trust that after those dark nights of the soul, the sun will rise on another, better morning.  And find it in your heart to let go and trust God with all of your life.  Even and perhaps, especially when you feel weak and utterly helpless, our God may be silent, but God is there.

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.

I’m not busy.

I had a week off from teaching last week, which I’d made plans to fill with rest and dissertation-writing.  And then people started showing up in my life in tears, in shambles, wanting to talk, and asking for my help.

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

In some ways the hardest part of these conversations wasn’t the real suffering in the midst of this world, but the ways in which each person couched their requests with, “I know you’re just as busy as the rest of us, but…” or “You must be so busy, but…”  But the fact was, for once, I wasn’t all that busy, I had space and time, more ample than in any other week, to listen, to soothe, to pray, to drive someone around.

I was so grateful to God for filling that break with ministry, for using my time so much more wisely that I would have, and it’s led me to think whether this “I’m not busy” thing could become a way of life.  You see, I started to like the way the words felt on my lips, the way the extra time, space, and the whole mentality made me a more careful listener, a more gracious friend, and a willing servant.  In the end, I’m pretty much convinced that there are only two ways to live this life: “being in control,” which amounts to swimming desperately upstream, kicking ferociously against all that we’ve been given, or well, going with the flow.

555543_3235175730369_1190122823_n
Paddling on the Yong River, Guangxi, Nanning.

What’s so interesting is that we, in all our foolishness, often call this gasping for air and feverish kicking, living.  We call it busyness with self-important sighs and cluttered calendars, and we trick ourselves into thinking that it’s some pinnacle of achievement.  But when we retreat to our homes and our families and our friends who actually know us, we find that “being in control” is inordinately heavy.  These calendars and commitments– they weigh us down, sapping the life out of us, one forced smile at a time.

These past two weeks, I was forcefully reminded that I don’t want to be in control of my life, because God has other plans.  As people of faith, we are invited to experience the opposite of control, we’re invited to feel weightless, in that we’re to collect burdens for one another and cast them all onto Jesus.  Of course, it’s an idealistic vision of this life, but it’s true–it’s what God wanted for us.  We Christians are so passionate about ridding the world of sin, but perhaps it’s no wonder that feels so heavy and so busy and so burdensome when we take it all upon our shoulders.  We hardly have hope of weightlessness when we’ve become so competitive about who’s carrying the heavier load.

Now it’s possible you’re reading this today and you’re feeling out of sorts, because I’m talking about lightness and your load is heavy: you’ve got three mouths to feed and two jobs, or family members facing cancer and death, or uncertainty and pain in your marriage, or children doing drugs and hurting themselves in heartbreaking ways.  I’m not in your shoes, and I can only imagine how hard, unjust, and stressful any and all of those real life situations can be.

But I’m also not hoping to turn being available, open, and free (like being busy) into a competitive sport either.  The fact is, if you’re working two jobs because you’ve got three mouths to feed, or your thoughts, prayers, and time are with a family member who’s sick, a spouse who needs you, or a child, life probably is pretty heavy right now, and you’re probably right where you should be.  In fact, what I’m proposing is an economy of mercy, where we who are choosing to be busy and distracted, stacking up appointments and zillions hours of work a week, might hear and honor the people in front us who need us in these real life moments.  And someday they’ll do the same, and we’ll all be a little more aware that we need Jesus and forgiveness and grace, and that’s the stuff life’s really all about.

Sonora Desert, Arizona.
Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

For me, one week of really not being busy turned into a second week of believing it.  Many times when I said, “Oh I’m not busy,” people didn’t really believe me, and at first, it felt awkward and trite.  They thought I was mocking them, which is sad, because even when I was full of joy I think the reason they couldn’t believe me is because we’ve all made connection and caring and time slaves to our schedules.

But I kept at it, I kept believing that God had brought my friends to me and God was going to be faithful to worrying about those details of scheduling, dissertation writing, lesson planning, and proposal writing, if I could just be present with that person in front of me.  And I could tell that my friends knew I meant it at some point, that it wasn’t that I’m not busy, that I don’t have things I could be doing, but that I was exactly where I wanted to be, and that when we’re there for one another, this world gets a little bit more graceful and that little bit is God in us and with us.

AZ desert
Hiking in the desert wash.

So I’m proposing a mini-revolution of sorts, a big screw you to the idolatry of calendars and appointments and modern life, and an invitation for you to tell someone this weekend or this coming week, “I’m not busy.”  They may not get it– after all, you may be the busiest person they know, and then it will probably mean that much more.

But the best thing will be that when they see that you’re really serious about not being busy, that you’d rather listen to them than do anything else with your time, they’ll not only feel free, but so will you.  You’ll find that God is faithful to carry all our burdens and so much more, and somewhere along the way, you won’t actually feel busy anymore.  Even though you still have a million things you could be doing, you’ll feel so miraculously weightless, and best of all, you’ll find God leading the way.

Thinkers Abound

When I hit the button to publish yesterday’s entry on thinking and advent, I’ll admit that I wondered if I’d just alerted the universe that I’m far less competent than I appear and whether I’d be able to live with the thought that my last post wasn’t really about advent at all, but yet another version of navel-gazing in a process of cultural shock that needs to end soon before all my readers abandon ship!

And then I read this little essay in the opinion section of the New York Times by Pico Iyer, where he talks about how he managed to distort the very paradise God had laid before him…with his mind.

The Delaware Raritan Canal in the fall. All photos by Evan Schneider.

Iyer writes,

“Yet still it’s uncanny how often we let ourselves out of the Garden by worrying about something that, if it did happen, would quicken us into a response much more practical than worry. All the real challenges of my, or any, life — the forest fire that did indeed destroy my home and everything in it; the car crash that suddenly robbed dozens of us of a cherished friend; my 13-year-old daughter’s diagnosis of cancer in its third stage — came out of the blue; they’re just what I had never thought to worry about (even as I was anguishing over whether they’d serve spinach when my friend visited the retreat house). And every time some kind of calamity has come into my life, I and everyone around me have responded with activity, unexpected strength, even an all but unnatural calm.

It’s only when we’re living in the future, the realm of “what if,” that we brilliantly incapacitate ourselves.”

Of course when you worry like that it’s simply miraculous to find others around you responding with unexpected strength to the real disasters…but why worry?  As Iyer continues, “Nowadays my one, obviously flimsy, response to all this is to try to bypass the mind if I can’t control it and at least not take my anxiety so seriously.”  

I was heartened: thinkers abound!  I’m not the only one who struggles with control!  (I knew this, but I guess I had to see it in the NYT to be truly comforted…)  Iyer even mentions that he does his best writing when he’s not even thinking about writing–how’s that for a dissertating strategy?  Confounding but true, I think.  And he concludes the essay by recognizing that we’re fallen creatures, grasping for something larger than ourselves:

“We worry only about exactly those things we can never do anything about. And then that very fact becomes something else we worry about. The cycle goes on and on until we let the mind give over to something larger — wiser — than itself.”

The gates of Princeton University on a fine autumn day.

Are you a thinker?  Does your mind undo the paradise and the blessings God faithfully throws your way?  So how do you let your “mind giver over to something larger — wiser –than itself?”

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.