Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

Outside the walls

A few months ago I overheard my husband counseling a friend who was going to accompany us to a party thrown by a bunch of my colleagues in anthropology.  “You don’t have to worry with them,” my husband assured our friend, “anthropologists are interested in everything.  Watch, whatever you say they’ll find it interesting, they’ll talk about anything forever.”

It’s evidently what makes us quirky party attendees or hosts, but I like to think that our curiosity as anthropologists is also one of our best qualities.  We find the world more interesting, more beautiful precisely because of diversity and difference.  Life is more intriguing because of culture, because your corner of the world doesn’t look talk, or act, like mine.  And yes, I could talk about those fascinating differences in culture, well…forever.

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A foster mom in Anhui, China embraces her foster son. Photo by Jason Fouts.

On the last day of the class I was teaching at the seminary this semester, when I felt like I’d earned the right to speak a little of my own passion into my students’ lives, I challenged them to believe that they might learn just as much about God outside the Church walls or the seminary campus as within.  I asked them to dare to believe that pushing their faith to include, behold, embrace, and learn from people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds–pushing their faith to be real outside the Church might actually make it deeper, more powerful, and more poignant.

You see, I think that while it’s human to be curious, it’s also human to be really freaked out by difference.  And when we Christians get skittish, we often take a lot of the beauty and truth and goodness that God has blessed and made and called good and try to cram it into our manmade boxes.  I think good theology and good anthropology teach us to do just the opposite (like reminding us that Jesus blew the chains off women, tax collectors, diseased men and women, and prostitutes,  and included us Gentiles in salvation) (or anthropology that shows us how insightful, productive, and healthy cultural differences are), but we humans also like to be in control.

Anyway, I said these things to my students not only because they’re my truth but also because the next generation of spiritual leaders just might be our politicians, professors, doctors, lawyers, philosophers, non-profit managers, prison wardens, and community organizers.  A friend of mine had a conversation last week with a faculty member at the seminary who said her greatest concern is that we are preparing seminarians for jobs and a world that doesn’t exist.  A few days later, that same friend asked me whether I claim my Christian faith in community and what that means.

Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And I realized for the first time in years of discerning and seeking and praying that I can say that I’m “out,” for lack of a better term, in my department at my university, as a Christian, a minister, a person of faith, and it finally feels right.  My colleagues happily introduce me as their resident pastor, they call on me for counsel in difficult situations because they know I’m not afraid of the messiness of life, and they even appreciate being told they are prayed for.

But it doesn’t just go one way–these same colleagues hold me accountable when I begin to complain or gossip, they counsel me through life’s big decisions, and they rejoice and grieve with me.  Both these experiences close to home and those afar of being ministered to by those supposedly outside the fold have taught me that the Spirit isn’t limited to the walls of the Church despite our unconscious, subversive efforts to confine it.  The prophetic isn’t limited to God-fearing people, and Christians don’t have a monopoly on Truth.

A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Ben Robinson.

Perhaps this is where my anthropology meets my theology so nearly, neatly, and dearly–in the enmeshing of the sacred and the profane in the everyday lives of people in culture, relationship, and meaning-making.  Real salvation is transcendent in that it seeps out of our pores to touch everyone we meet and everything we do.  And so I think theological education has to change to respond to not only this reality, but this Truth.  It has to equip all these people who are going to be outside the walls of the Church institution, and who will be ambassadors of faith and hope and love in this world.

I look around and I value and am inspired by both forms of leadership, service, and ministry–those inside the Church and out–but I believe the Church and seminaries have often been focused on internal ministry at the expense of the external, and our lives are lived, made, and redeemed in the everyday.

A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Thanks for letting me talk forever and ever this morning about what I really find interesting in this beautiful, strange, sacred world.

P.s. You may notice the blog has a new look.  About time, right?  Everything’s pretty much the same except some of the links are to the right and on the bottom.  Thanks for stopping by and let me know what you think of the facelift.   —Erin

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What it means to be a child of God

Yesterday the minister stood in the pulpit putting plainly the state of this world, from attacks in Boston and Syria, gun violence, earthquakes in China, and buildings collapsing in Bangladesh, and the words rippled and reverberated like aftershocks through my fragile heart.

And on top of all these things, the passage for the day (John 14: 23-29) was one in which Jesus speaks about leaving his disciples and the world behind.  At a moment of great uncertainty not unlike this one in our own world, what must it have felt like for the disciples to hear that Jesus was leaving them far behind?

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Sure, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit and peace, Jesus says, “I am going away, and I am coming to you,” and Jesus urges them to not let their hearts to be troubled and to not be afraid.  I’m sure they felt like very empty words and promises to those left behind.  There are times when the most brilliant, comforting words feel hollowed out of all holiness, because life has delivered such a bitter blow.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus sends his Holy Spirit to advocate and to teach, and leaves a peace that’s unlike the hollow, bitter circumstances of our lives.  I’m sure the disciples didn’t realize it at the time, but Jesus’ leaving, his death, would unlock for them a new identity, a whole new life.

I feel like I’ve been picking on Tanya Luhrmann a bit lately, but she’s right about this: being a child of God makes all the difference in the world.  When darkness enfolds you and nothing in the world speaks of grace or hope or beauty anymore, it is an enormous truth to know that we’re not defined by this world, but by God.  We’re not only created in God’s image, and children of God, but we’re being made new.  We are new creations in the midst of destruction, desolation, and brokenness.

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As the minister spoke this Sunday he encouraged us to reflect on the grandeur of the gift of peace.  It’s been said many a time that peace isn’t the absence of war or violence or pain, but the presence of God in the midst of these things.  But I think it’s even more powerful to reflect on what a gift peace is and those in our lives who give us this holy peace and not as the world gives.

The minister spoke of peace as what allows you to keep your footing in the midst of the tremors.  Peace is the people who sit beside us, taking deep breaths with us when even breathing feels like work.  Peace is companionship and grace and abundance in a world of scarcity.  But most of all, I think peace is the eternal Spirit that allows us to marvel at ourselves as children of God even when the world is crumbling.

Amen.

Why we pray

Sometimes it seems as though the world is so saturated with pain and heartache and disease and fear that it might burst.  

It’s in those moments that we put our hands together, we bow our heads, we bend our knees.  If we’re honest with ourselves, sometimes we do it less out of faith and more out of desperation and perhaps a little bit out of habit.  We go to God to find solace from the scary world, to test that God is still there, to cry out to someone who we want so boldly to trust, cares.

If you’re like me, you may have circles of friends who aren’t people of faith.  Do you pray for them, too?  Do you tell them?

The Giant Buddha on Lantau Island, Hong Kong.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
The Giant Buddha on Lantau Island, Hong Kong. All photos by Evan Schneider.

Despite my shoddy track record as an evangelist, I almost always do.  I almost always tell them that I’m thinking of them, that I’m praying for them, and of course, being a former seminarian, I’ve wondered a bit about the theology in all that.

But I’m pretty sure God doesn’t.  When we’re on our knees and lifting our friends in prayer, it isn’t theology that grounds us, but the Holy Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit doesn’t merely speak the language of Christianity or faith, but the language of the heart.  So the language of the heart tumbles out of us, knowing no boundaries, no colors, no sects, no creeds.

When I’ve told my friends who aren’t people of faith that I’m praying for them, I think they’ve found it meaningful, perhaps even more meaningful than those in the church.  They don’t have to be Christian to know that interceding for someone is the work of desperation, habit, and perhaps a little bit of faith.  They do it, too, in their own ways.

As I read this little book by Anne Lamott on prayer these days, I am reminded how simply prayer is about communion with God.  I like how she believes that honesty before God, all of our anger, frustration, and fear, can actually lead us toward, rather than away from God.

Hong Kong

And I wonder if we in the Christian community have spoken too often about what prayer isn’t, so that we’re hardly left with anything that prayer is.  The funny thing is, my non-Christian friends want to pray, too.  They sit there before a meal, waiting on me to bless it.  They ask me when and why I pray.  In fact, they’re not nearly as skittish about prayer as we Christians are sometimes.

And what if I leveled with them?  What if I told them that I don’t pray because I have great faith, I pray because I need great faith?  What if I told them, I pray to hear my own voice saying that God is there, because sometimes I myself have a hard time believing it?  What if I told them that I pray because I simply wish I could feel God a bit nearer all the time?

When it comes down to it, I do believe that God meets us in prayer.  But I also believe God intercedes when we don’t have the words, that God hears the prayers that ruminate in our minds whether we choose to speak them or not, so that prayer is not so much about what God is or isn’t doing, but our need for God.

A pagoda peeking out over the trees in Hong Kong.
A pagoda peeking out over the trees in Hong Kong.

But when the doors to the church are shut so tight, I’m pretty sure those outside can’t see that we’re actually just a bunch of needy people, people just like them.  So this morning, I’m praying for friends, Christian and non-Christian alike, and I’m praying for God to shine brightly through my cracks, my weaknesses, and my neediness.  May it truly be God who is glorified, praised, and honored…in prayer, in life, inside the church and out.

Neediness

I’ve all but reached the grand finale in the book of Luke.  I know the events leading up to Jesus’s final hours, how he taught in the temple, and slept on the Mount of Olives, all too well, and yet things are remarkably not as the seem (21:34-38).

Wa church members worshiping in Yunnan.

The wonderful thing about scripture is that our own context always alters its meaning, lifting certain moments out of obscurity.

That…and the Holy Spirit, of course.

And so this morning as I find myself lamenting the divisions of my Church in America, as well as the fledging churches in China, I am humbled to see how Jesus surrounded himself with (unlikely) broken beings.  I think of Peter in his denial, Judas in his betrayal, and what rings true is not the prowess of Jesus’s twelve, but rather their inability to understand, their fears, their selfishness-in short, their humanity.

Rural church in the mountains of Yunnan.

The other morning as my friend and I reflected on the passage about the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (Luke 8), she remarked wisely that Jesus responds to people with authentic need.  How true that is, I think, for all throughout scripture we see people who in humbling themselves before Jesus, their hearts have already been cured in that they’ve found their way to humility, servanthood, and faith.  Therefore, they are freed of their burdens, cured of their disease, and fully healed.

Meanwhile we who feel we have bigger fish to fry, we who, like the disciples, no sooner have we received Jesus’ sweet communion do we start to quibble about who among us is greatest (Luke 22:14-30) and who shall be saved, we mistakenly see ourselves as without need.  Jesus famously says in the fifth chapter of Luke that those who are well have no need of healing, and that he’s come to call not the righteous but the sinners to repentance (5:31).

Surely Jesus was being sarcastic about those healthy, righteous people, right?  Oh, what I wouldn’t give to hear the tone of some of these one-liners!

Context, my friends.  And thank God for the Holy Spirit.

Mandarin Bible with Dai translation notes.

As I read about that Holy meal this morning in modern China, that famous last supper, what strikes me today is not only the communion Jesus offers to all of us so greatly in need, but how that last meal is tainted with the foreshadowing of betrayal.  We will all succumb to the lie in life that we’re healthy, shiny got-it-all-together disciples, and only when that lie comes apart at the seams do we find ourselves crawling back to Jesus.

So today I’m praying that God would make me ever aware of my own fragility, that I’ll stick to a life of groveling, crawling, and humbling myself–in short, the life where I belong.  And that the humanity of others would only make me see myself more clearly, more accurately, and that would only make me cling, in my neediness to Jesus.

Sounds like another job for the Holy Spirit!

Inside a Wa church in Yunnan province. All photos by Evan Schneider.

Equipped by the Spirit (Yunnan Reflection #2)

Hmong minority women take in a Thanksgiving service

In a conversation with my mother about the recent trip I took to Yunnan with PFF, she reminded me of an important theological paradox, “Does God call the equipped or does God equip those whom God calls?”  The topic of our conversation was a humbling moment during the trip when I got to translate the faith story of the Provincial Leader of the Yunnan Christian Council and TSPM (Three-Self Protestant Movement [or government-sanctioned] Church).

This man, who currently supervises the religious life of the entire province has only a high-school education, and reluctantly came to the capital over ten years ago at the urging of others in his tiny village who could see the call God had on his life.

With tears in his eyes, he spoke of how ill-equipped he felt for the ministry to which he was called: before coming to the capital, he spoke no Mandarin, only his local minority language, and had only recently become a Christian and become involved as an elder in his poor, local church. But when he heard the story of some foreign missionaries who came to Hong Kong without any language skills or few resources, and were subsequently used by God to strengthen the church there, he knew he had to be obedient to God’s call no matter his own fears or the risks.

Today, as a minority himself and a born leader, his vision for the growth of the minority church in Yunnan consists of a heavy emphasis on theological training at all levels (county, provincial, and national), from local programs for village elders who will never have the opportunity to leave their villages, to scholarships for college students who are the first from their villages to study at university.

As we traveled throughout the countryside, we saw these various levels of training schools and scholarship support in progress, and it was a challenge for we Americans, to whom much education and theological training has been given, to encourage both education and the work of the Holy Spirit in these local congregations.

While we recognized the validity of their desire to be trained, we also tried to stress the lesson that their provincial leader embodies, which is that God truly equips those whom he calls. Being in the presence of this great leader and pastor humbled me, for all the theological education in the world cannot substitute for the willingness of a person to submit to the work of the Spirit and the call God has on his or her life.