Tag Archives: culture shock

On community

When I came back from China I was really hurting.

I miss my life there, I would tell people with great drama, but it was how I felt, as though something had been ripped from me, because I’d had friends who knew my heart even though we spoke another language together.  I’d seen strength of character like no other in the foster mothers I’d met, and I wasn’t all that hopeful that I’d find it again in this land of affluence and privilege.

Statues in Paris, France.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
Statues in Paris, France. All photos by Evan Schneider.

But I was drawing these lines around communities the way God never does.

It was easier for me to compartmentalize and think in binaries: China was a place where great struggle and sacrifice produced something real and holy, whereas in the United States, life was hollow and stuffy, less shot through with God’s work, because there was less need, less contrast.

It wasn’t true, of course, but it seemed to make the ups and downs of culture shock more justifiable.  But I was insulating myself from life here by thinking and dreaming about China and logging many hours in Mandarin on skype.  Although I gradually reentered the world of academia and my husband I began to reconnect with friends and find a church community, deep down I still doubted whether these communities would ever compare to what I had in China.

Prayer candles in a cathedral.
Prayer candles in a cathedral.

This past weekend, my husband and I took a great leap and joined a church community that has gently, yet firmly demonstrated God’s faithfulness over the months of culture shock in this land.  What’s so powerful to me is that over those months, I haven’t particularly mentioned my doubts and fears to many people there.  We’ve told people that we spent time in China, but I haven’t asked for their prayers.  I didn’t really know how when sometimes the very prospect of being in community here seemed the last thing I wanted.

But as I’ve listened to the prayers of this community over the last few months, I’ve noticed something.  Before I went to China, I used to lead prayers of the people in my previous congregation, separating the joys from the concerns, but the people at our new church let them bravely comingle.  They don’t seem to worry that the praise of one might smart in the wounds of the suffering, or that great needs might rain on the parade of another’s blessing.  And that’s what life is like, what hope is like, not some naive optimism, but a conviction that suffering exists, and yet, God is very much present.

I realized, I’d been doing it all wrong.  

Not just the prayers of the people, but this theology of parsing the real from the ordinary, the needy from the privileged, and of course, the praise from the pain.  It makes sense to me now that as much as I’d seen and experienced God in China, China itself had become a hollow idol threatening to separate me from the real people in front of me.

Sacre Coeur at night.
Sacre Coeur at night.

This Sunday there was a family in front of us who’d lost a mother and a grandmother and there were painful tears shed as they asked for prayers of comfort and support from the church.  But there were also their arms draped around one another’s shoulders, and deep, heartfelt prayers of praise to a God who they know to be real, powerful, and present because they have each other, their friends, and their church community.

As Evan and I joined the church, nearly every member of this tight-knit family came and congratulated us, personally welcoming us to their community.  How people show that kind of hospitality and peace and love in the midst of loss is the best testimony I have to a God who is real, and who embodies hope and holism and life over death!  It’s that honesty in which people lay their hearts before community, but also the practice of hope and resurrection that’s healed me and freed me even though the people in the pews didn’t particularly understand my struggle or my pain.

Atop a grave marker in a Paris cemetery.
Atop a grave marker in a Paris cemetery.

Thank God they didn’t draw lines around their community.  Thank God there is room at the table.  And thank God for great, audacious hope in the midst of suffering.

Amen.

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On prayer and presence

Do you ever get the feeling you are hemmed in by blessing both before you and behind you?  And that despite this season of grief and being torn from what was made familiar, there is promise in the ordinary, steady work of the hand of God?

I couldn’t sleep this morning.  I woke up around four o’clock and made the efforts at tossing and turning until it made more sense to rise and simply make something of these moments.

Photo credit: http://ayearabout.wordpress.com/category/new-england/.

And I’m sitting here in the dark of autumn in the early hours, oddly comforted by the quiet and the thoughts that wouldn’t leave me this morning: thoughts of friends and family who’ve listened to my thoughts these past few weeks with prayerful diligence, feelings of excitement about the presentation I gave yesterday on my research and the generosity with which it was received, and the sense that at a time like this, when China is fluttering away with rush hour energy on the other side of the world, God must be in the midst of it all, painstakingly working for justice and peace and love in motions far beyond my understanding.

I had that sense when I sat in silent prayer last Thursday at a weekly meditation lunch on the university campus.  I breathed in and out and felt filled by God’s presence.

Perhaps it was easier because I’d met with my spiritual director the day before and she’d made me attuned to the slightest of thoughts and motions that push God further away.  Perhaps it was the way in which the leader of the session invited us to think of those who were suffering and tears rushed to my eyes as I thought of all those friends and families in China who are ever on my heart and yet feel so far away.

Or perhaps it was simply the stopping, the breathing, and the embracing, that is that first necessary step toward God.

This morning’s meditation from Oswald Chambers talks about prayer as the end to our means.  It talks about the work that prayer does in us, and the sense that it is enough.  These words gave me great comfort and peace, especially at a time where I continue to feel the distance and the distress in leaving China in all the small and great things alike:

Prayer is the battle, and it makes no difference where you are. However God may engineer your circumstances, your duty is to pray. Never allow yourself this thought, “I am of no use where I am,” because you certainly cannot be used where you have not yet been placed. Wherever God has placed you and whatever your circumstances, you should pray, continually offering up prayers to Him. And He promises, “Whatever you ask in My name, that I will do . . . (John 14:13). 

In prayer, we are promised God’s presence, which is what the spiritual life is all about–finding, knowing, and being known by God.  And so as I go about my daily life in this place, despite the aching and restless feelings that come with the culture shock, I’m starting to embrace the fact that God has called me here, and that prayer can be greater and wider and more than silence or rightness with God or signs of holiness.

I’m starting to realize that maybe all of life is prayer and my role is simply to show up.

What do you think?

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.