Tag Archives: foster families

Faith Begins by Letting Go

A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon on the trust psalms, particularly Psalm 27, entitled, “Trust, Perseverance, and Doggedness.”  When I went hunting for a closing hymn for the service, I stumbled upon a relatively new one entitled, “Faith Begins by Letting Go.”

While I ended up selecting it for the service, I felt a bit puzzled by the title, the lyrics, and the sentiment.  The first stanza is as follows:

Faith begins by letting go 
Giving up what had seemed sure 
Taking risks and pressing on 
Though the way feels less secure 
Pilgrimage both right and odd 
Trusting all our life to God

I wasn’t sure I believed that faith begins by letting go of our foundation, taking risks, and that one’s pilgrimage should feel “both right and odd.”  Still, something about the hymn seemed to resonate with the content of my sermon, especially the ode to one of the great contemporary spiritual writers, Anne Lamott, on perfectionism and they way in which our writing cramps up around our wounds as in life.

These past few weeks I’ve encountered my own cramps and struggles to write, and am starting to believe in this whole wisdom of letting go.

You see I was having a lot of trouble getting my thoughts to find substance and clarity on the page, writing and rewriting pages and pages of an article on my research with foster mothers in China.  I kept thinking that despite my frustrations, I needed to have faith that these meanderings, however seemingly futile, had some semblance of progress and that I would eventually find my way if I kept at it.

However, this morning during my prayer time I realized that in the writing process, I’d started to lose the joy and excitement that is so genuine to my work with families in China. And I decided to give myself the freedom to reflect freely on what I learned and what I love about the families I worked with.  In a away, I decided to free myself from the burden of writing something smart and relevant and pertinent to the academy and instead tap back into what these families, this culture, and these people taught me about God and life.

And suddenly I was at no lack for thoughts, ideas, and even words on the page.  

I recalled, rather crudely, what these foster mothers had taught me about my own neediness for God and for others, and that true kinship, true family, is not about blood, choice, or even love, but our deep need for one another.

I love that as I yielded to venture away from what I think I know or how I think I should say it, God let me back to my own need for God and others, and this great sense of unity that in my deepest being I have for my vocation as both a scholar and a minister.

I’m so thankful for the wisdom of letting go today–not only because it’s getting me closer to getting this article down on the page, but because it’s taking me to a revelation that I couldn’t have found on my own, by my own strength, might, or wisdom.  It’s making clear my need to rely on God and others for insight, faith, encouragement, grace, and communion.

And despite how scary that is, it’s an an amazing place to be.

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A preface of sorts

I’m learning that writing a dissertation is all about excess.

A botanical garden outside of Boston.  My photo.
A botanical garden outside of Boston. My photo.

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.

E-bikes in Nanning, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
E-bikes in Nanning, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

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.

Fishing alongside the Yong River in Guangxi, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Fishing alongside the Yong River in Guangxi, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

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.

A foster mother and her son in Anhui, China.  Photo by Jason Fouts.
A foster mother and her son in Anhui, China. Photo by Jason Fouts.

I once read a warning from another writer about the tendency to make the people we meet and learn from and love, “dear, little tragic figures in the story of me,” and the phrase struck real fear into my anthropologist soul.  Even as I write these words now back in the glass towers of Princeton University, it’s been hard but necessary to come to terms with the fact that what I write will inevitably be a sort of fiction—irrelevant and inaccurate—because these people, these friends, are not characters I invented, but people whose lives go on, quite independently, quite functionally from mine after I’ve left China.

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.

Visiting foster homes with an orphanage director in Anhui.  Photo by Jason Fouts.
Visiting foster families with an orphanage director in Anhui. Photo by Jason Fouts.

Virtual Coffee Date

South Lake Park
A weekend stroll in South Lake Park, Nanning.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

If we were having coffee this morning, I would tell you that we’re entering the fourth week of my course at the seminary, and it’s already been such an incredibly rewarding, exciting experience.  The most fulfilling part is that I don’t feel like I have to sell the students on the fact that culture, family, and ministry go together.  They believe that twenty-first century ministry is all about embracing and negotiating difference, and they’ve been so affirming over email, coffee, and in person that this is a course that they need: praise God!

I would also admit that when it comes to my dissertation, I’ve been working hard, but it feels like the writing is being cobbled together, and all the cracks are showing.  I’m trying to be brave and believe that even in academia, we can let some of these cracks show, learn from one another, and find grace in life’s seemingly most unyielding moments.  I’ll let you know how that one works out…

Souvenirs

It’s Chinese New Year in my other home these days, and despite the fireworks and the fanfares, for the foster families in Guangxi it’s often a difficult time of year as the weather turns wet, cold, and unrelenting.  A wise NGO worker I knew once pointed out that for children in orphanages this is the loneliest time of year, when they’re reminded they have no family to celebrate, no grandparents to travel home to.  I’m praying for protection and warmth and possibility for the foster families and healing, love, and peace for all the children.  Happy Year of the Snake!

As for me and God, we’re just hanging out.  No agendas, just me accepting and reveling in God’s unconditional love.

This week I realized that despite how wonderfully God is integrating my academic and my spiritual lives in this course at the seminary, in conversations with colleagues and professors, and even in my dissertation writing, I had become restless.  In my prayers, I was setting an agenda for the time I was carving out.  Instead of simply rejoicing with God, I’d moved on in my mind to what was next, to how this all could possibly be so neatly integrated in a future in which I’d be forced to choose between academia and ministry.

The temple rooftops in Kunming, Yunnan.
The temple rooftops in Kunming, Yunnan.

But it’s not my job, it’s never been my job, to hold all those pieces together…it’s God’s.

And I hear God saying firmly, let me do my job and just let me be with you.  (It’s a thrilling revelation by the way, when you realize the almighty God just wants to be with you!)  And when I let God pour God’s peace into me, filling me to the brim, I’m not only reminded that my plans and agendas are the stuff of this world, but also that God’s peace makes me a better pastor and professor.  It’s funny how God volunteers to carry our burdens but we’re the ones who keep snatching them away.

When I look back on God’s deft work in just one month of 2013 here, I am amazed at what God can do!  I’m amazed at how God led me to simple, integrating goals that were refusing agendas from the very first days of this year, and how those represent God’s hand and God’s promise to continue integrating all these different parts of my call in powerful ways.  I’m amazed at how whole I feel here in this place when months ago, just returning from China and listless, I wondered if that was even worth praying for.

It’s amazing how productive God can be if we just leave the agendas, the goals, and the making us whole thing to God.

Virtual Coffee Date

There’s a blogger I read and like who does an occasional, reoccurring post entitled Virtual Coffee Date.  She borrowed the idea from another blogger, and I, who love coffee, also love the idea of pretending we’re sitting down here for a sacred cup and gabbing like old friends.

I admit, in the same breath, that I’m kind of intimidated about a post whose very premise seems to suggest that I have this busy, interesting, important life to keep up with, but then I’m reminded how instrumental this blog has been to process this (and many of life’s) transition(s), and I’m thankful for a space to spew some of these fears, hopes, and prayer requests, and especially humbled by readers who attend to them!

A typical morning scene for this gal.

So if we were sitting down to coffee I would tell you all about the dissertation, how much it strikes fear into my heart when anyone mistakenly asks if I’m done yet (I’ve hardly just begun), and how paralyzing it is to think of synthesizing a life–anyone else’s or the one that I had in China–into a word document.  It’s mostly difficult for good reasons: my life in China taught me so much, not just about culture and childrearing, but about God and humility and faith everyday.  So I’m a ball of nervous energy and excitement when it comes to this daunting project!

I’d tell you how much I’m looking forward to fall here in Princeton, how welcome the crisper, cooler mornings are to a girl who was previously living in the tropics, and how I can’t wait to bring on the pumpkin spice, the leaves on the tow path, chunky sweaters, my October birthday, and getting cozy with warm coffee.  I love and have missed all of that!

A foster mother and her daughter in Guangxi, Nanning.

I’d tell you about my friends in China, and my best girlfriend who is in crisis and constantly on my mind, and how hard it is to be away.  Please pray that she feels closer to God and God’s peace and also pray for the mothers, fathers, children, and orphanage workers there.  Pray especially for a twelve year-old girl who will be adopted in the coming weeks to a loving family in the states and for the joy-filled foster mom who has raised this soulful, mature young woman.

I’d tell you (and thanks in advance for listening) all about this course I’m excited to take at Princeton on modern Chinese intellectual history in Chinese that I’ll use to work out my Chinese and my mind this semester.  Feeling pretty blessed to be at one of the best Chinese language program’s in the country and looking forward to speaking and writing more competently about my research in Chinese through this course.

And finally, I’d tell you about the brokenness in my home church, where huge changes are stretching everyone’s patience and faith.  I grew up there and out of that wonderful place of diverse thought and acceptance sensed my own call.  And my deepest prayer is that those in the church find a way to love one another and be one in Christ despite the hurt and the pain.  Healing takes time, and as a child of the church, those suffering are ever in my thoughts and prayers.

My lunch view here on Princeton’s campus. Gorgeous!

And I’d ask you to praise God for finding me here in New Jersey, for God’s persistent call on my life, for the depth and the breadth of experiences these past few years, and the possibilities that remain. 

Two years in China

Nanning at twilight!
Another image of city life in China.

It’s been two years of life for my husband and I here in China.  We’ve traveled to the mountains of Yunnan to visit minority churches, explored the ultra modern city of Hong Kong, explored, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Egypt, and the UAE and hosted our families and friends. He’s completed two years of teaching college-level English and I’ve finished two years of fieldwork with foster families.

On Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam.
In Tahrir Square, Cairo, on the one-year anniversary of their revolution with our friends Ben and Emily.
With a foster baby in Guangxi. Photos by Evan Schneider.

More than anything, as I look back through the past years, I’m astounded not only by the breadth of these experiences that I will carry with me, but also God’s provision and faithfulness.  

If you have time I invite you to check out the following posts which weave their way, highlighting some snapshots of our two years here, describing some of the highs and lows of research, faith, cross-cultural immersion, and our life.

From 2010

August 2010: Abide in me…  {thoughts on silent prayer in a city of 7 million, spiritual growth, and freeing oneself from distractions}

September 2010: Journeywoman  {on security, brokenness, and culture}

December 2010: Equipped by the Spirit (Yunnan Reflection #2)  {reflections on my first trip to Yunnan, and the tension between the need for theological training and the equipping work of the Holy Spirit in the Yunnan countryside}

From 2011

May 2011: Hunan Headlines: A Mix of Sorrow and Hope  {personal and professional reflections on the baby-selling scandal in a county in Hunan, which made international news}

July 2011: Church Renewal from Below  {thoughts on Richard Rohr, cross-cultural exchange, and Chinese solutions to Chinese problems}

August 2011: A Taste of Vietnam {evangelizing for one of my favorites, Vietnamese coffee!}

October 2011: Come on ride the train {snippets from a typical road trip to Guilin}

November 2011: Like a child  {reflections on fieldwork with children, disability, and faith}

December 2011: The Best Things about Winter in China {bundled up babies, chestnuts roasting, and hot pot, of course!}

From 2012

January 2012: Cairo notes: from the rooftops {a reflection on our first few days in another land}

February 2012: Thanking God for the woes  {on the beattitudes, justice, and God’s call}

March 2012: 72 Hours in Hong Kong {highlights from a weekend trip}

April 2012: Some Easter Thoughts from China {on Christianity, tomb sweeping, and culture}

May 2012: Consider the ravens, consider the blessings {on understanding, cross-cultural relationships, worries, and of course, blessings}

July 2012: Pinching myself {reflections on leaving China and savoring the little things}