It’s bad blogger etiquette, isn’t it, to post about this season of fullness and never fill one another in on what the true challenges and joys are, and generally how it’s going?
For me, fullness is a mixed blessing. It’s been finishing the writing and revising of my dissertation on Sunday mornings, which has been necessary and fulfilling, but has taken us away from our dear church community and made me wander a bit from God. So fullness, ironically, in the vein of confession, has included a spiritual desert for me, in which I’ve been reticent to go to God with all of my worries and concern, for fear of finding answers that I haven’t wanted to hear or face. Fullness, though, has also been the everyday work of plodding along with life, filled with the everyday joy of seeing our daughter and our family grow together. It’s included brave car trips with a screaming baby, on the end of which we were fortunately met by treasured friends.
I’m starting to come to terms with the idea (and this was evident to me as I peered through tears writing the acknowledgements to my dissertation in the wee hours of another Sunday morning feeling so humbled by so many people who had a hand in it) that when we are in the blessing and sacred presence of others, despite our own penchants to push God away, God is never far away at all. I am amazed that despite my tendency to drift in this season, God keeps close through the ministry of others. As our pastor reminded us this Sunday, “that’s how God gets things done.”
I’ve been so focused on getting my own things done in this season of fulness that I often forget how faithfully God has stood beside me at this time and all along. In returning to acknowledge God, it makes sense that my first action, before repentance even, would be praise. Even as this makes cognitive sense to me, I’m still struggling a bit this morning. I pray that I find those words of praise even as my spirit is weak.
Where has God stood beside you in your life? What is God doing for you now? How is your season of fullness coming along?
A few weeks ago in a teachers training, we read the first few paragraphs of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” In it, Nietzsche outlines the bleak philosophy (Nietzsche, bleak?!) that all (human) knowing is but prideful deception. As is my typical reaction to such existentialism (and which tapped into my fears that my life spent as a graduate student has been little but frivolity), I sensed a dark cloud hovering.
But as I’ve ruminated on the depth of Nietzsche’s claims these past few weeks, I’ve realized with deep refreshment, that while perhaps knowing often goes hand in hand with self-deception, learning can remain a joyful, humbling pursuit.
I remember in college, when I took an elaborate spiritual gifts inventory, how surprised and rather deflated I was to find one of my top gifts listed as curiosity. Is that really a spiritual gift, I mused? What good is curiosity about others and about the world to God? Many years later, after pursuing higher education for nearly fourteen years, I often wonder the same thing. I worry that the career of a graduate student, at which I have spent almost the last decade of my young life, is not an exercise in self-deception, futility, or frivolity.
But when I think on what fascinates me about the world, what drives my curiosity, and that is not a deep understanding or knowing, but a desire to know and understand, I consider that anthropology might just be my calling. When I recall that being in the position of graduate student, one is always in pursuit of knowledge, but never quite the apprehender, the expert, or the master of that knowledge, I relish the deep passion and humility one must have for apprenticeship and learning to be a student. And when I remember that all ministry begins from a place of common humanity, and how much I learn day in and day out from others, I feel quite at home.
I realize how blessed I have been to be able to be a diligent student of ministry and anthropology all these years, and how essential it is that when I step into those roles of preacher and teacher that I do so with the heart of a student. God is always teaching, and we are always learning. It’s when we become certain of our knowledge and prideful of that fact that life, as Nietzsche warns, and we, become a tangle of twisted lies.
May we always be curious, may we always be humble, may we always be eager to hear the voice of God in those around us. May we be life-long students who never tire of the mysteries of God and life and the joys of learning. Amen.
Well, operation-complete-a-revision-of-the-first-draft-of-the-dissertation-before-the-baby-comes is in full swing!
On Friday, armed with decaf coffee and hot cocoa, I tackled the first chapter and am happy to report that while it’s not perfect, it’s light years from where it was. I have a lot of motivation, of course, with a baby on the way. Plus, I’m signed up for a dissertation bootcamp through the writing program next week, and I really believe I can do this.
Still, there’s nothing like a baby to put your plans in perspective–to help you realize that your plans are yours and well, God’s are God’s. I sometimes imagine God chuckling, “Just try to control the timing of this baby, just try.”
I’m happy to report that I have a draft of my dissertation–all five body chapters–and am working to make revisions to these before the baby comes. Throughout the pregnancy, even though I haven’t felt great, I’ve been really active, continuing my normal runs (albeit shorter and slower) along the canal, and I’ve had a fair amount of energy, which I’ve been really thankful for.
Still, it’s been discouraging to hear unsolicited advice and comments from strangers or acquaintances warning that I’ll “get nothing done after the baby comes,” or that the energy, productivity, and passion that I have for my dissertation project will necessarily fall by the wayside.
I can’t anticipate what it’s like to have a baby.
I imagine it will be an uncanny mix of exhaustion, joy, and fear, and schedules and priorities will necessarily have to shift, but I have no way of knowing what’s really coming. It’s a completely new experience for my husband and I, and so these comments have, on occasion, sprouted little seeds of doubt about myself and the life and passions I seemingly will have to give up for a new baby.
I’ve been noticing, however, that I’m not a stranger to the unknown, and that through all the unknowns in my life, God has been decidedly faithful, providing possibilities I, myself, could have never foreseen. It’s been helpful as I approach the unknown of having a child to remember how my husband and I felt, for instance, before going to live in China. We had no idea what to expect, and yet, we prepared as best we could, seeking counseling, reading books, imagining potential conflicts, difficulties, and pitfalls, as well as looking forward to the excitement of a new experience.
I recently read a blog post about productivity from Zen Habits in which the author describes anxiety as a lack of trust in the future. While I think this makes sense, I don’t necessarily see a reason to trust the future per say, but I do want to be a person who trusts God with my future. God sees possibilities for us that we can’t, but we often struggle to let God be God when it comes to the future. For instance, the teaching experience that I just completed at Drew that was so formative for me wasn’t even on the radar until summer last year. If I had panicked and chosen something else, I would have missed out on one of God’s possibilities.
It’s funny how this kind of trust in God can impact not just the future, but the present. For instance, when I realized that the negative voices of strangers often came from a place of anxiety themselves, I gradually began to also hear the confidence and encouragement of friends who know me well. My spiritual director told me she’d never been more productive than when she had a newborn who slept all the time, my advisor never wavered from believing that I could complete both a dissertation and have a baby, and my friends only seem to be more supportive of me now that my husband and I are embarking on this new season in life. It means so much to have God using these friends and mentors to remind me who I am during this time.
I love a challenge–I always have, from that first trip to Mexico in high school to our life in China, to writing a dissertation, and finally having a baby–these are all things that at one point seemed impossible that God made possible. And so here I am, over eight months pregnant, working on a dissertation, expecting a baby, and wondering what possibilities God has in store for this coming fall.
And with God by my side, I hardly feel anxious.
It’s this challenge of faith, trusting the future to God, and leaning on God to yield contentment and peace in the present, that’s keeping me grounded, confident, and filled with gratitude. I don’t think contentment is about sliding into complacency. On the contrary, it’s about living faithfully with the uncertain, another challenge that God’s been guiding me through these past years. I just keep marveling on how much God can do with our lives when we bow them at God’s feet rather than wresting them from a God who wants to show us possibility.
How do you trust God with your future? How do you find contentment in your present? How do you worship God with your life?
I’ve been such a delinquent blogger because of it all, and while most of the busy-ness is good (I’ve completed 2 fellowship applications out of 4, my class is going great, the dissertation is coming along, and I’m heading to a conference in a few weeks and off to spend Thanksgiving with dear friends and family…oh, and there’s the whole every-growing belly thing), sometimes I find it difficult to rise above the stress and anxiety of the season.
I’m blessed to be a pretty low-stress, low-fuss individual, and so I’m often the one others come to to vent, emote, and share. And I love listening and being as much comfort as possible to those around me.
But I’m discovering lately that my empathy supply isn’t endless, nor is my energy, and what it means to be me is to remain rooted in God’s calling on my life, to worship, to take time in silence, and to pray. I love my colleagues in the Anthropology Department, but sometimes I need to step away to remember why I’m working so hard on this dissertation and this dream.
For instance, the other night, I skipped the third dissertation defense in two weeks at the university to attend a gathering for church communities who want to try to be more inclusive toward people of all abilities. We visited and got to know one another over a meal and then had a simple worship service in which we prayed with and for one another. And this amazing thing happened–it wasn’t the people with the more apparent disabilities that needed care and prayer, but the supposedly able people at the table. And the friends with disabilities stepped in, naturally and full of confidence, to offer care and support.
And as tears came to my eyes and chills wafted over me, I took a deep breath and knew so clearly, this is where I need to be. This is where I’m meant to be, with all the other broken people, the imperfect people, with the children of God. And that experience reminds me why I write this dissertation, because the story I’m telling about foster parents and disabled children in China is so much larger than me, anthropology, or the job I may or may not get. It’s a story about God’s transforming love, and I feel simply humbled to have been a witness to it.
So no offense to academia in this season–I’ll keep writing and applying and teaching, but I’m not going to stress out about it. I’m going to spend the time with the people who remind me who God is and who I am, and they may not be the most likely people, but they’re some of the best around. Today I’m praising God for God’s church, all God’s children, and the perspective that finds me when I’ve lost myself somehow.
Thank you God, for showing me, time and again, where I’m meant to be.
If we were having coffee this morning, I would wonder aloud whether this coming of age thing is supposed to be so fraught with life and death, divorce and birth, loss and love. Sometimes the co-mingling of so much joy and pain, so much sunshine and devastation, seems cruel, contrite, and certainly, inconceivable. I think it’s partly this stage of life, where friends and family are facing such crossroads, but I also think that living life fully necessarily takes us into deep sorrow and deep joy, and we have little control regarding where one ends and the other begins.
I’m left with a sense of awe regarding how the God of the universe holds our fragile lives in such a charged balance. And a sense of humility for how little I understand of this life, how without words I find myself when witnessing deep pain or deep joy.
But in the midst of the unknown, I find gratitude creeping over me.
What more is there in this life than accompanying one another through the valleys and the mountains? What more is there to be being human than these experiences and the ways we respond in love and care to one another? And how much more there is to this God we seek to know more fully! I’d tell you that even when I can’t see or feel God and I doubt what God is doing, I trust in God’s peace that passes all understanding, I trust in the peace we lend to one another as sinners, yet bearers of Christ, when worldly peace is utterly unfathomable.
I’d also tell you how I’ve hit something of a stride with this dissertation and how very thankful I am to be in a field where I can be both analytical and creative. I’d tell you how nervous and excited I am to be teaching at Drew University this fall and be learning with students there about Chinese family culture. I’d tell you about the anticipation of planning to receive our Chinese pastor friends at Princeton Seminary and Princeton University this fall, the joy I feel at hosting them at our home when they were so generous in showing us around years ago.
And finally, I’d tell you about how gorgeous these final days of summer in New Jersey have been, how there’s something about the sun coming through the window in the morning, the hummingbird on the porch, and the encroaching crispness of the evening hours that reminds me of hope in the midst of darkness. Just last fall, New Jersey experienced much of the brunt of Super Storm Sandy, but since that time, nature has been healing herself and healing many of us in the process.
Yes, in the midst of pain, there is peace. It’s not immediate or instant, but comes about slowly, with grace and goodness, and we are its bearers in a fallen world.
What is your hope or your peace this day?
P.s. I’ve linked up all the virtual coffee date posts in a new category so you can find them easily. Check it out!
I’m learning that writing a dissertation is all about excess.
You write and write and write (or at least this is the way it has gone for me), without any sense of the whole, blindly, and at best, faithfully, and when you generate enough material, things start taking shape. You’re no longer writing so much, but sifting through material, arguments and descriptions, and assembling something piecemeal, slowly and methodically.
It works best when there is excess, but that’s hard to accept when you’re first getting started. You want it all to fit. You want not a moment to be wasted. But not everything will make its way into the larger work. There will be pieces that stand alone, and pieces that are ultimately set aside.
Here’s a bit of excess for the moment. Something I wrote months and months ago and finally came back to, and liked, but who knows whether it will make it into the dissertation.
Consider it a sneak preview!
I remember sitting with my Chinese professor in his office in Princeton explaining my intent to go to Southwest China to study foster families. When he heard Guangxi, Nanning his ears perked up, and he bellowed a guttural laugh, “I don’t even understand a thing they say there, ha! Good luck!” I remember not only the cacophony of languages and accents upon touching down in Nanning, but the pervasive smell of mildew, the sea of e-bikes stretching across the broad avenues, and my first forays through neighborhood markets searching for foster mothers alongside a friend who swore they could be found.
I met not a single foster mother that first summer. Instead, I met many people, all Chinese, who told me emphatically that they did not exist. Most people who I met in Guangxi apologized obsessively for the “backwardness” of their region, and they urged me to go somewhere of more importance in China. Chinese professors of anthropology wondered how what I was studying could be called anthropology if it did not concern the Zhuang minority culture for which Guangxi was famous. They misunderstood the focus of my research to be international adoptions, because as they and many others stated, there was no Chinese culture of adoption.
But in March of 2011 all of my fledgling questions brought me to an unassuming concrete office in the middle of the city, where a small NGO staff assembled and told me they supported hundreds of families in Nanning and thousands outside of the province to who took orphaned and abandoned children into their homes. That April, in a nearby city orphanage, an elderly woman with a kind smile told me how she’d started foster care projects in Guangxi in the early 1990s out of necessity, poverty, and concern. Guangxi, it turned out, despite the naysayers, was at the center of a disperse, yet expansive foster care movement.
When you’re sitting in classrooms and carrels imagining anthropological fieldwork, you can only think in systems and power and theories. It was no different for me, and despite the draw of foster mothers’ joy and pain, I imagined a China in which movement of children from public orphanages to private homes represented an unprecedented receding of the state from private family life. I conjured a sophisticated state, modern cities, and rapid social change.
But instead what I found is time nearly standing still in the cinderblock homes of foster families, whether they lived in the capital city or off the rice paddies between mountains where people plowed with oxen, a rickety tool, and their own two hands. I learned that despite the narratives about the strength of the Chinese state in my textbooks, power was always locally negotiated. Despite the myriad of books on China’s urban centers, the people of Guangxi are, as Fei Xiaotong wrote decades ago, firmly “of the soil.”
And I discovered that despite the literature on families and family life in China, nothing prepared me for the sudden expressions of emotion I would encounter on the inside—the secrets people confided in me, illegitimate children, illegal adoptions, and how parents clung to me briefly and then physically pushed me away. So powerful and yet fleeting were these displays of emotion that I often wondered whether I imagined them, or if they did occur, what it was inside of me or between us that elicited such rawness, even as I relished the intimacy. Even if you know in your heart that you are dealing in the realm of truths and the kindred, there is, for the anthropologist, always the concern for what will someday make it onto the page and into the readers’ conscience. And the fact that your informant is never so concerned with representation in these real moments, but only concerned with living itself, that’s what always gives me a sinking, slithery uneasiness.
For every anthropologist of China there is this sense that you become irrelevant once you leave and China goes on changing at the speed of light. And for every human being who has ever done fieldwork or loved another they’ve left behind, there is also this hope that while others will go on living, that you’ll never, ever be the same.
I shut my eyes a week ago now during a moment of mediation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If we were having coffee this morning I would tell you that I love this time of year, because the year, stretched out before us, firmly in the future, is full of possibilities.
Perhaps you would remember that I love to set goals, but this year as I prayerfully considered what God was calling me to, I found myself penning more general statements about how I want to live my life, Pray Audaciously. Be Gracious of Heart. Approach teaching as service and writing and learning as discipline.
A few nights ago I sat in silence, and I felt my heart racing. I felt insecure. I’m insecure, because teaching is a new experience for me this semester, and when I think about needing to prove myself, I’m crestfallen. In my heart, I’m still yearning for China, and when I think of learning and serving, I often picture being hungry and cold with people somewhere else in the world, or preaching from a pulpit in a congregation. But I sat there and I waited for a word from God, and I heard that what God’s calling me to is, “sitting at your feet, childlike, attentive, waiting. It’s being a servant,” and my heart leapt as I thought, “and even I can do that.”
Approaching teaching as service reminds me that Jesus’ teaching was never about proving himself, or even about being right, but it was wholly relational, progressive, and above the fray. And because Jesus relied on God for the balance between these qualities in teaching, his teaching was life-changing.
Yesterday as I talked through some of these fears and excitements with my spiritual director, I realized that if I could just listen to my students with love and attentiveness, if I could just learn with them, I think I’d be doing enough and serving well. In the language of servanthood, teaching becomes less about doing things right or perfectly or best, and more about regarding the people in front of me with respect, reverence, and a gracious heart, and again, I think “even I can do that.”
I would go on to tell you that I intend to sit in silence this year to listen to God more often. I would tell you that I plan to say audacious prayers for China. Somewhere along the way, I think my heart became so troubled by not being there and not being able to “do” anything, and I think deep inside me, a little part of my faith died, when it comes to the people I love there who I feel are very confined by their circumstances. But lately I’ve been remembering that God changes hearts and lives, which is pretty much the greatest path, perhaps the only, toward changing circumstances, and I’ve resolved to pray boldly for China and its people.
And finally, I would tell you that yesterday I had a meeting with a professor who somehow saw through all my meandering writings of late, that my heart lies with foster moms and disabled children, and he encouraged me not to look for ways to make my dissertation topic bigger or more important, but to trust that this small topic can become bigger and greater and more compelling than I ever imagined. It was both overwhelming and heartening to hear such critique and advice–heartening because these are the stories I collected and want to tell, and overwhelming because I need to start a bit fresh with some applications and outlines and etchings.
But it’s a new year, and what better time to start fresh, right?
This past year was filled with so much wonder, discovery, challenge, and I hope, growth.
I can’t hardly believe that we began the past year in Egypt, on the anniversary of their revolution, traveling with good friends in Cairo and then in the UAE. I wasn’t sure I’d ever return to the Middle East after such a whirlwind trip, but lately I can’t stop thinking about that trip, the people, the cities, the mystique of it all.
My fieldwork really began to pick up in 2012 as I traveled frequently to a new foster care project for disabled children in a village several hours outside the capital city. I wrote one of the most popular posts on the blog that month, describing some of the lessons I’d learned from doing fieldwork in China, and tried to give you a glimpse of what I really did everyday!
In March, Evan and I spent 72 hours in Hong Kong, where I presented some initial findings of my research to the Department of Anthropology at Chinese University of Hong Kong. It was one of my favorite trips to one of my favorite cities!
In May, our friends Zack and Kristina joined us in China and we did another tour of Hanoi and Halong Bay. Soon, Evan was finishing up teaching, and I was wrapping up fieldwork. My family joined us in June, and we all traveled to the breathtaking rice terraces outside of Guilin together. Finally, at the end of July, we left China, and I’ve been looking back ever since.
Back in the US, challenges took a different shape–moving, readjusting to our home culture, academic culture for me, a new job for Evan (yay!). The last few months feel as though they’ve flown by even faster than our time traveling the world and living in China. We love being back in Princeton, because our friends seem to enjoy coming back here, too, and we’ve had countless visits from dear friends these past few months.
And though I never thought I’d get there, but I’m starting to ache again to set flight for somewhere new and exotic. Guess that’s just the anthropologist in me!
2012 was also the five year anniversary for this blog. Five years of anthropology and ministry, Spanish, Chinese, world travels, centering prayer, physical and spiritual journeying, and gratitude–gratitude for you, dear readers, and gratitude for God’s blessings upon this past year and the next. Thanks for making this journey with me!
Happy New Year!
What would you like to see more of on the blog in 2013?