Tag Archives: expectations

What if it’s all ministry?

As I drove into work the other morning listening to a podcast, a woman on the other end proclaimed that time is in some sense the great equalizer–no matter who you are, from the president of a country to a mother of twelve, you only get 24 hours–you can’t stretch it or exceed it or reform it.

Oh, but you can desperately and fruitlessly try…

As I’ve been finding myself at some of my limits in terms of time and energy and motivation these days, I’ve done the one thing I’ve urged my students not to do: I’ve turned inward, convinced that I’m not living up to expectations.

But whose expectations? I’ve begun to wonder.

I have realized these past few days (with some help from my spiritual director) that my own expectations have crowded out my good work as I hold a hierarchy of ministry in my mind.  As someone who has aspired to be a missionary and who has lived in abandoned bars and alongside drug addicts in Puerto Rico, sought to live in solidarity with migrants in Mexico, and slept on the floor of Chinese orphanages, I’ve always had this unspoken belief that the more uncomfortable you are, the more meaningful the work is that you’re doing.

And that’s honestly worked okay for me, because I have a high tolerance for discomfort.  I suppose I consider it one of my spiritual gifts, that instead of being repelled from what’s different, I’m drawn into cross-cultural conversation and challenges and dissonance.  But my life is not the hearty picture of discomfort that I once imagined it to be these days.  Despite those limited 24 hours, I feel the need to do more, to give, to reach out, and I struggle with the limits I experience and my finitude.

But I’m learning a couple of important things little by little.

I’m learning, for one, that one person’s discomfort looks quite different than another’s.  And I’m realizing that the ministry that God has for me may look different than what I imagined for myself.  I’m realizing that the wide breath of ministry God has put before me–ministry with my daughter with disabilities, ministry with my students, ministry with my congregants, maybe even ministry through my blog–may have gone unrecognized, especially to me.

You see, I’ve always taken that verse in the Bible very literally about selling all your stuff and following Jesus and felt pretty crappy that I still have stuff.  And part of that is really good, I think, because what I find so challenging and compelling about that verse is the reminder that aren’t people that are made for the things of this world.

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Rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27) imagery.  Photo credit.

 

But what if it’s all ministry?  

I always tell my students and my colleagues that I want to imagine a world of abundance, a world in which everyone can succeed and thrive, because I really believe God to be a God of abundance.  But ministry…the world as chocked full of ministry, relative only to us, but wholly instituted and appreciated by God?

Well, that thought, that reality, is blowing my mind.

When I realize that I can’t sell all my stuff because my daughter needs feeding tubes to live and standers to make sure her hips don’t come out of socket and a pump to keep her alive overnight and seizure medication, it’s rather black and white and shortsighted and unfaithful to assume that I can’t be faithful to God because of all of that.  Those confines fail to reflect the love that God has grown in me for this child with disabilities, the theology that God has granted me to call Lucia good and perfect and really believe it, and the ease that I have and have always felt with people with disabilities.

That must be ministry, too.

As I looked around my life yesterday afternoon–as I walked back from ice cream with the first generation  and low-income college students with whom I’ve spent the past seven weeks, and with whom I’d grown so thoroughly–I realized some people might call that classroom one of real discomfort.  As I reflected on our little church that is a bit messy and inhabited by very varied abilities and ages and quite a few folks with special needs, I realized that some people might find that kind of worship truly arduous.  And as I thought about my writing–writing that works to connect up all these disparate avenues, foster families and China and faith and academia and caring for a child with disabilities–I realized that I’m still one messy, drawn-into discomfort individual, but I simply don’t experience it that way.

I realized that even as I’ve been fighting for a ministry that’s meaningful, God has been equipping me in the one that’s here.  I wondered in that moment if the choices I’ve made for my life aren’t so much right or wrong as tied into this purpose that may flaunt my expectations but dig deeply into the gifts God has instilled within me.  And I wondered if perhaps the greatest discomfort I’m feeling about the challenge of being here and doing all of this isn’t the very discomfort that God has for me to grow within in this season.

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God’s majesty in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

As I walked back and the wind rustled through the trees, I thought I heard a whisper, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

And for the first time in a very long time, I think I started to believe it.

Advent: Reorienting Expectations

Advent is the season of waiting and expecting.

Candles on Christmas. Photos by Evan Schneider.

And I realize I’ve written a lot about expectations on this blog.  Inspired by a post on Zen Habits and shaken by a professional disappointment, in China I wrote about the freedom that comes with tossing one’s expectations into the ocean.  Then, a year later in the midst of culture shock and making a new life in this country, I wrote about the sense of hope that comes from being a forward people and being able to rest in a God who promises more than we can possible imagine…or expect.

Lately in preparation for the courses I’m teaching on Cross-Cultural Family Systems, I’ve been reading a lot about lowering one’s expectations when it comes to dealing with difficult family members.  Such a directive doesn’t seem to jibe with the orientation I want to take to humanity and family, which is more along the lines of investing in people, and sharing real struggles in order to reach a place of deep communion and better communication.

As this dissonance swirled in my mind, it also brought up the varying engagements with expectations that I’ve been pondering and writing about–tossing, lowering, and raising–and I wondered what this range says about theology, consistency, myself, or God?!

Boats on Plymouth Harbor.

At present, I’m drawn to the conclusion that not only are tossing one’s expectations into the ocean, lowering one’s expectations, and expecting everything perhaps relevant to different life seasons, but they all clearly involve a reorienting of expectations, in which we hopefully allow God to return to the center of our lives.  To explain, are not tossing one’s expectations into the ocean, lowering one’s expectations when it comes to family members satisfying all our needs, or expecting faithfulness and promise from God all deep acts of faith that recognize God’s supremacy and our humanity?  

It’s funny, because taken from this angle, lowering expectations, when it comes to family (which is particularly relevant during this season!), is perhaps neither glib nor maudlin, but rather a recognition that our tendency to attribute our failures or unhappiness to others is our problem, not theirs.  Investment in our friends and family, then, becomes the radical practice of sharing, not because we expect others to fix problems for us or fix themselves, but simply because we love and trust that relationship itself is life-giving.

Our bonzai Christmas tree in China, decorated for the holidays.

So this Advent, whatever your expectations may be, whether you’ve tossed them, lowered them, or raised them, may God be your guide and your center.  May God be at the helm of your reorienting and may we all be powerfully changed by a God who is wholly and holy relational, and with whom, we find both radical hope and freedom this season to love those in our midst.

Amen.

P.s.  This great little post on five advent reflections may have gotten buried in a previous post.  There’s so much about God’s reorienting work in these reflections- enjoy.

P.p.s.  Gretchen Rubin’s tips for getting along during the holidays!

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.