Tag Archives: control

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!

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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.

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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.

Expect everything.

With foster children and parents in Guangxi, Nanning.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

It’s an interesting thing, this business of homecoming, because at a point when you feel quite vulnerable, listless, and perplexed about how to reknit yourself into the fabric of this place and these people, others seem to be prolific with giving advice.

I had been hanging onto some of those pieces of advice as of late, not quite knowing what to do with them, but succumbing to their power nonetheless.  I was told by several people after coming back from two years in China to simply take some time, not to dive into my notes, and to not move on or forward too quickly lest the disorienting power of culture shock creep up even more over me and paralyze me with a vengeance.

And I think those well-meaning people were onto something there.  

Gorgeous morning on the Princeton campus in the President’s garden.

I have discovered along the way that it’s been important for me to be cognizant of the illusion of control not only in China but in this place, for me to seek God especially when I’ve failed him, and for me to convene and to trust that God is the same here as God was in China, or anywhere else for that matter.

But somewhere along the way I also took the advice given to translate as the supreme surrender that this time of culture shock and readjustment would be a period of great unknown, and therefore I should have no expectations of life, God, others, or myself.  There have been times in my life where expectations proved seriously unhelpful, and where tossing them into the ocean has taken great faith and conviction and produced great peace and comfort.

Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo by Evan Schneider.

But I hear God telling me that this is not one of those times.

Instead, I hear God reminding me that we are a forward people, that I’m cut from the cloth of other pilgrims, seekers, and dreamers, and that making a life in a new place comes easier if I believe, I trust, and I expect God to go ahead of me.  In fact, I hear God saying that in this moment, that’s what faith looks like, a daring openness to those and this life around me.  I hear God reminding me that even though many of my expectations of China were bowled over by the sheer unpredictability of life there, God’s faithfulness certainly wasn’t.

With friends in China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And I’m reminded how sweet it is to be a person of faith and to find that even when many around you will tell you that there’s no rhyme or reason to this season, that you can’t count on anything at all, we can.

We can trust God to be there.  We can trust God to move.  And we can expect everything, because of what God has done for us.

Amen.

On nourishing the Spirit

I think I was in sixth grade when I received my first copy of Oswald Chambers’ devotional, My Utmost for His Highest.

I’ve reread the book countless times over the last couple decades (yikes?!), and it always amazes me how relevant Chambers’ messages seem for our time despite the fact that he lived and wrote at the turn of the twentieth century.

Reading through today’s devotional in My Utmost, I was reflecting on how Chambers’ says so directly that “when a person is born again from above, the life of the Son of God is born in him, and he can either starve or nourish that life” and the contrast between an ever-loving God and a God whom we cannot truly receive or know without will, effort, and commitment.

Incense prayer labyrinth at a temple in Yunnan, Kunming, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Chambers goes onto say that only at our wits’ end does it seem necessary or no longer cowardly to pray, “but as long as you think you are self-sufficient, you do not need to ask God for anything.”  And, prayer is “not a matter of changing things externally, but one of working miracles in a person’s inner nature.”

I’ve been reminded lately in conversations with friends of this illusion of control and how often we prefer to live that lie rather than the truth.

What I’m also reminded of this morning is that God is not ‘out there; but desires to live through you and me, and this work of seeing and knowing God is about constant growth, about choosing everyday to get beyond ourselves so that God can nourish us and those around us.

That’s what God’s been speaking to me lately…what about you?