Tag Archives: grace

Hitting our stride

My husband and I celebrated our fifth anniversary of marriage in Paris this May.

Paris at sunset.  Photo by Jeremy Wance.
Paris at sunset. Photo by Jeremy Wance.

I usually let him lay low as far as this blog is concerned.  He’s the kind of guy who has plenty of opinions, but is also content to let me play the public internet persona…though his tidbits of wisdom still sneak in from time to time.

I wanted to write about marriage from a personal point of view, though, not because my husband and I are above the vulnerabilities of any other couple (and believe me it’s scary out there), but because especially when we’re feeling vulnerable I think it’s important to share our joys with one another, too.  I wanted to share what we’ve learned in a short period of time, which is enough to tell any newlyweds that it gets better, much better than you could imagine.

Many moons ago, we weren’t really the types who saw ourselves getting married, and I remember wondering even as I said the words, “I do,” how anyone in their right mind could promise forever and eternity, especially someone like me who had only lived twenty-six years up until that point.

But I’ve come to believe that marriage is a lot like faith–we promise impossible things, not because we’re capable of them, but because we believe that through practicing faith, we grow to be faithful.  We believe that our faithfulness, our devotion, and our love mean more to marriage than our abilities, our faults, or our failures.  I believe that a healthy marriage, like a healthy faith, relies on grace, mercy, and love.

At the top of a minaret in Cairo, Egypt.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
At the top of a minaret in Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Ben Robinson.

I haven’t always had that kind of faith.  

The first few years we were married, things were kind of rough, and our relationship teetered because of imbalances in careers, contentment, and expectations.  We weren’t very graceful with one another most of the time.  We were just trying to hold things together so they wouldn’t fall apart.

Over the years, we’ve learned that it’s not so much about holding things together, as practicing trust, compassion, and understanding.  It’s a bit of a slight of hand–when things feel like pushing a boulder uphill, it’s usually the pushing that’s not helping.  But when things look effortless, there’s a lot of building, trusting, and caring that’s going on behind the scenes.

A few years ago I remember sitting in a classroom in China, where my Chinese teacher outlined marriage patterns in their culture.  She drew a little chart where she demonstrated that men with Ph.Ds marry women with masters degrees, men with masters marry women with bachelors, and men with bachelors marry women with a high school education.  She pointed out that my position as a female doctor would be very lonely in their society, where men are still threatened by women’s academic success and earning power.

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Crowds at night. Photo by Evan Schneider.

As I walked home that day, threading the e-bikes and seas of people, I realized how much I had taken my husband’s undying support for my academic goals for granted.  He’s never once begrudged me my success or my dreams, in fact, he’s always there right behind me, supporting and encouraging me (it’s not like the man is an underachiever, though, I mean the man has two masters).  The point is, when I wasn’t looking my husband was investing in not just me, but our marriage, silently and without fanfare, but in one of the most meaningful ways.

I’ve found someone with whom I share a passion for travel, for service, and for justice.  And I’ve grown as I’ve let this person shape me, too, with his love for China, his passion for learning, and his commitment to community.  My goal these days is to outdo my husband in my respect for him and in trusting his love for me, to rejoice with him as he excels in his new job, and to challenge him to achieve his goals as well.

Lately I’ve been so filled with gratitude that I enjoy spending time with this guy just as much, if not more than we were first met.  It’s a thrilling thing to be–and I know this is cheesy–falling in love with your husband more and more everyday.  But it’s also a sobering thing to choose that love and commitment day after day especially at the moments when it would be easier to say something prideful, spiteful, or just walk away.

In front of the dragon's neck rice terraces, Guangxi, China. Photo by Kelly Raffety.
In front of the dragon’s neck rice terraces, Guangxi, China. Photo by Kelly Raffety.

I guess that’s how one promises forever, one day at a time, until ten, twenty, thirty years have passed before you know it.

For now, I’m satisfied with five.  I feel like we’re finally hitting our stride, and I’m in for the long haul.

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Each other’s miracles

No matter who we are, no matter where we’ve come from, or what we’ve done, there are times in this life where we are reminded that we are but fragile humans, vulnerable to the myriad of threats to life on this planet.

Lashihai Lake, Yunnan, China.
Lashihai Lake, Yunnan, China.

And at times like these, we ask very important, very human questions about whether a good and mighty God causes or allows things like disaster, disease, or illness.

We asked some of these questions last Sunday as part of a summer series our pastor is engaging on questions from the congregation.  As she invited members of the congregation to share, it became apparent that we’re all struggling somehow–that these threats to life touch us all very deeply, because none of us, no matter how proficient at this thing called life, is immune to disease, disaster, or especially, death.

A mosque in Cairo, Egypt.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
A mosque in Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Ben Robinson.

And as our wise pastor shared her own thoughts on this difficult topic, looking out at many tear-stained faces in the congregation, she pointed us from God’s Old Testament miracles to Jesus’s healings, to his death on a cross, and finally, his resurrection and the Holy Spirit he left behind.  She reminded us, as she often does, that we are the body of Christ, and so we’re the ones that are charged with ministering to one another, with being Christ to one another in these moments where the questions seem to weighty to bear.

So I’ve been pondering, all week, the depth and simplicity of that theology, daring to wonder what life would be like if we were one another’s comfort, one another’s grace, each other’s miracles?

They would know we are Christians not by our love, but by our empathy, by our grace, and our mercy.  Because love is oft contaminated by the things of this world, sometimes most of all by we Christians and our misguided, self-righteous and judgmental  interpretations of truth.

Foster families in Qinzhou, Guangxi.  Photo by Jason Fouts.
Foster families in Qinzhou, Guangxi. Photo by Jason Fouts.

I’m led this week and this weekend to contemplate an economy of grace in which we can be a little more aware of how much we’re all hurting and a little less judgmental and a lot more humble about how healing happens.

What if instead of contemplating the origins of disease, asking how the bus driver got lung cancer, or quibbling with the details of disaster, wondering why people bother to live in Oklahoma which is so prone to tornados, we contemplated the length that Christ went for us on the cross, the underservedness of our own grace, and the abundance of grace in a world that’s often so graceless?  And then what if we committed to being not the one who speaks, but the one who prays, not the one who solves or fixes or even heals, but the one who recognizes, beholds, and reveres deep need?  What if we found a way to acknowledge great hurt, but live with great hope?

What if we were one another’s comfort, one another’s grace, each other’s miracles?

Young monks in Luang Prabang, Laos.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
Young monks in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Ben Robinson.

Oh Lord, come quickly.

Amen.

Opening Prayer

Here’s the opening prayer* from yesterday’s worship service that really spoke to me.  

The whole service did, actually, and I’m still mulling over the sermon and the challenges and that Bible that never ceases to upset the apple cart.

Fungi in the forests of New Jersey.  Photos by Evan Schneider.
Fungi in the forests of New Jersey. Photos by Evan Schneider.

But more on that later.

For now, just the simple gift of prayer.

Maybe you’ll use it to pray over your week.  Maybe you’ll use it to bless your table this evening before you sit down to eat.  Maybe you’ll whisper it to your children, your spouse, or your friends over the phone, as you ease into bed, or as you lay awake with worry or fear.  I don’t like that you might worry, but I love imagining how prayer is private, yet corporate, spoken both in times of great joy and great pain, inhabiting the many shades of our daily lives.

The confession in this little prayer made my eyes widen.  So often we are the people who find lack in the midst of abundance.  May we feast on God’s grace this week and find ourselves fulfilled, content, and brimming with peace.

Most loving God,
among us there are many shades of both strength and need.
We are the people of much knowledge who lack wisdom,
the people of many possessions who lack fulfillment,
the people of abundant technology who lack hope,
the people of pleasures who lack contentment,
the people of many comforts who lack peace,
the people of much pride who lack dignity,
the people of ideals who lack vigor,
the people of belief who lack faith,
the people of faith who lack love.
Whether we have journeyed a long way
or have just come down the street,
we come seeking spiritual food to feed our spirits. Amen.

*Borrowed from Seasons of the Spirit

Ballpate Mountain Park, NJ.
Ballpate Mountain Park, NJ.

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.

Cracks are all there is.

I was thinking last night about how earnestly hard we work to prevent the cracks from showing when really, cracks are all there is.

The Bible is full of cracked people, of course.  And somehow we read it and we think we will be different–we think that with all our hindsight and modern wisdom in hand, maybe our cracks just won’t show.

Light streaming through the top of a mosque.  Cairo, Egypt.  All photos by Ben Robinson.
Light streaming through the top of a mosque. Cairo, Egypt. All photos by Ben Robinson.

A former college classmate (who I admire very much) who writes a witty blog on faith and culture recently dubbed 2013 her year of epic failure.  She doesn’t want to fail, of course.  I think she mostly wants to learn how not to be so afraid of it, to be controlled by fear that she might and will fail, and remain one of us–you know, one of those phony, better-than-Biblical characters.

The other afternoon I heard a minister of a growing, vibrant, multicultural church describe his job as a series of humiliations.  A couple weeks ago a person I had judged as highly successful and privileged told me the secrets to her success included some epic fails along the way.  And finally today I told some friends about how I used to be so chicken to try new skills in gymnastics but my twin sister was a dare devil.  She fell more, but she also flew higher.

Evan and I buying lamps in old Cairo.
Evan and I buying lamps in old Cairo.

It’s telling that these people who share their failures don’t come off as flimsy, irresponsible, or incapable to me.  In fact, I tend to respect them even more.  I find their humility a breath of fresh air in a world where perfection is worshipped and as a result, insecurity, fear, and disbelief are often held far too dear.

It may sound cheesy, but I think another thing I relish about seeing my own cracks and those of others for what they are is that a little bit of God tends to peek through them.  It shouldn’t be so surprising that God makes us both cracked and beautiful, and that God doesn’t abandon us in failure (and neither do those who truly love us), but it is.

Sunset over Cairo.
Sunset over Cairo.

That’s how grace always feels: brand new and fresh, even though it’s always been there.  And suddenly the cracks look pretty beautiful…if you’re asking me.

Armfuls of grace and mashed potatoes

I feel like I’ve entered a phase where I’ve been forced to live here a bit more, to let others care for me, and receive the grace and abundance of this community.

The gates of Princeton University. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And while sometimes I feel sad and confused that China and her people are feeling more distant to me day by day, at my wisest, with God’s presence near, I realize it’s not an either/or.  God doesn’t want me to or ask me to choose between people in China and people here, but to believe that God’s omnipotence leads to impossible community and connection.

Not last night’s presentation but another one from this season.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But it’s not just God, it’s God’s people who do that kind of work–the people in my life who generously let me babble about the foster mothers I’ve met until I’m breathless, the people who sat through my presentation last night and inspired and encouraged me with their enthusiasm for my study of families in China, and the people who value and understand that work is not just work to me, but the stuff of vocation, passion, and calling.

Photo by Kayla Nymeyer, Yunnan province.

And so as we enter this season of giving thanks season, and China feels further and further away, I count the blessings so near and pray for God to come closer.  Not just closer to me and mine, but to God’s people in China and people everywhere, because that’s God’s thing–doing the impossible globe-trotting ministry of presence.  

More beauty in Yunnan.

And the rest–the believing and the boldness and the taking in big armfuls of grace just as we do extra helpings of mashed potatoes and turkey–well, that’s all up to us.

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.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

On the Princeton campus, glimpses of green.

I didn’t write about it, but last week my world, and it’s positively because I’m still betwixt somewhere between China and this country, came crashing down.

And I wept, and worried, and wondered what solace I could find in this place and these people who seem so far removed from anything of the experience I had in China, from the people who sometimes only seem to live on in my heart, but who I know from the wonders of technology continue to suffer, create, and go on in a way I never could in a life so much more valiant than my own.

And I struggled with what it means to love and minister without presence, what it means to leave people behind, how much these feelings are about me and my need to assess and feel my own impact in this world, and where God’s call is in this moment.

I shouldn’t write struggled, past tense, because I’m still struggling.

Fall leaves on the Princeton Seminary campus.

But I’ve been encouraged by your comments, your grace with me during this time, your encouragement that reverse culture shock is a messy, nonlinear process, and that narratives of struggle, like my own, can be meaningful to others, despite our disparate paths.

I guess that’s where I’m led this morning–to see that Jesus’ healing is the opposite of judgement, that we don’t grow by covering up our faults and our failings, but rather by bearing our scars to one another and finding that miraculously, by grace, in our imperfections, we find ourselves whole.

The choke holds I assert on myself when I find my own needs bubbling up in the midst of my fears and my prayers for my friends in China just don’t get me any closer to that wholeness.  And the older I get, I find the people I most admire in this life are not the ones who have these linear narratives of autonomy, success, and brilliance, but those who resolve to live in the space where mistakes are always imminent, where brokenness is the real human condition, and triumph is wholly and unabashedly attributed to God’s goodness rather than individual expertise.

So I’m feeling pretty good about being broken this morning, like both my dear friends in China and my understanding friends in this country.  The more I see how deeply we all need God’s restorative grace, the less alone I feel, and the more I can’t help but think we’re all inexplicably bound together in this wonderful, holy pursuit of our God in this life.

New York skyline at dusk.

And that, my friends, feels pretty much like the opposite of crashing.

So, thank you for catching me, once again.

On bones and forgiveness

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?  But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.  –Psalm 130:3-4

You can focus on what we call the necessity of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or the sinfulness that puts us all in need of saving, or any manner of sins.  Or you can focus on that which makes our God so fully God, and that is, forgiveness.

The bones that make us the stuff of this earth, fully human, are the same ones that ache with insecurity and fear and lead us to point bony fingers at one another.  There’s no grace in those bones.

But if you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?  And so our bones crumble, not only under the weight of such iniquities, of sin, but of their very lifetimes, which are finite and limited.

But may we be reminded before we return to dust, may we choose always to focus on the fact that with you, Lord, there is forgiveness, so that you may be revered.  

It’s when I happen upon a scripture such as this that I’m not so worried about the eventual eroding and decaying of those brittle bones one day, but with every day that might go by in this lifetime when I could have embraced and preached your forgiveness but did not.  Every day that those bony pointing fingers might have held a hand in theirs instead of doing their wagging, or those legs may have stood in solidarity with other sinners, rather than walking away.

With you, Lord, there is forgiveness.

And may there also be with me, may there be grace in these bones, as with my brothers and sisters on the earth.  Amen.

A village elder in Yunnan province.  All photos by Evan Schneider.