Tag Archives: intimacy

On language and faith

Despite the title, I don’t have anything groundbreaking to say this morning, except that fellowship breaks into the most unlikely of places, and that yesterday was a reminder of all the possibility that exists not just in thinking but in listening.

Downtown Nanning. Crowds watch the dancers in the square. All photos by Evan Schneider.

I had my first meeting with my new language partner.  It had been difficult for me to commit to finding someone to chat with in this language that means so much to me–it felt like replacing all the amazing people I’d met in one place, and the choice needed to be just right.

But I didn’t have the time for that or the money, and so I chocked this one up to the universe, letting the university arrange the placement for me.  And yesterday a woman who’s about five years ahead of me in life greeted me by the coffee bar with the abrupt, halting speech patterns only reminiscent of a Chinese speaker of English, and as she began to unload copious amounts of unsolicited advice despite what little she knew of me, something in my spirit leapt and my heart warmed.  

See, I may have mentioned that there’s a love language in China to do with giving advice–giving advice shows you care, and so people take and give as much as is humanly possible!  And as my new language partner and I settled so effortlessly into a pattern of her speaking English and me speaking Mandarin, each pausing to correct unfamiliar words, I think not only my ears, but my heart recognized something as familiar and began to open.

A couple dancing in the square.

Last night I read this piece from Amy Lepine Peterson, “Speaking Faith as a Second Language,” and it resonated so deeply with not only my cross-cultural experiences but the goals and hopes I have for the courses I am teaching next semester on culture and family ministry.  Peterson writes eloquently about the process of learning that neither her native language nor her faith truly belonged to her:

“I was also learning that English–though my native language and one of the great loves of my life–didn’t belong to me. It didn’t belong to me, or to America, or to England, or to native speakers. As a language, it is a tool to be used, not wielded in domination or colonialism, but used for negotiating meaning. Together. Yet the transformation of my English has forced me to realize something even more important: that the language of faith needs to undergo the same kind of reconstruction for me to love it and use it rightly.”

As my language partner so openly told me about her struggles with depression in this country, her indecision about having a second child, and the pressures of work and family, I had to marvel as the intimacy that simply being present for one another, speaking the same language, introduces.  I suppose because language-learning is essentially about vulnerability, being willing to stumble as you’re trying to express some of the deepest parts of you, it’s also about faith, as you surrender your dignity, and putter along like a child.

Children playing outside a school in Yunnan, Kunming.

When it comes to this course I’m teaching next semester and my partnership with my language tutor, the goals seem akin to Peterson’s:

“Letting go of your ownership of the language of faith can be frightening, unmooring. Instead of being the person with the answers, you become a person with questions. Instead of colonizing, you work to cooperate. But in seeking to agree on the most basic of things, like the meaning of the word ‘prayer,’ you find a simplicity of language which lends itself to coordinated action. Your words take on gestures, form and meaning in the real world, incarnating the love you once only spoke of. Surrendering ownership of the language of faith means recognizing that I can only speak it as a second, and learned, language.”

So letting go, relearning, and listening.  That’s what God’s got on my heart this morning…what about you?

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The intimacy of family life

Often people in China and people in America are equally perplexed by what it means to study anthropology and do participant observation research.  

I know I can’t possibly explain it all in one blog post, but looking back I’m less entranced by the bureaucratic aspects of doing research in China (and trust me there were many), or the language-learning process, but rather the intimacy of being part of family life here in China, which has made me blush and cry from time to time.

What I’ve been seeking to do as an anthropologist studying foster care is to use the relationships I’ve been privileged to experience between foster mothers, foster fathers, their foster children, as well as other siblings and family members, as a window into describing the intimacy of contemporary relationships within Chinese families.

The author with a foster mother in Guangxi.

But it’s funny how scientific and sterile that can sound compared to the actual reality of things–getting sneezed and drooled on by CP kids as we frolic on the makeshift mats in their foster mothers’ teeny apartments, getting the sweat under my arms sopped up by a foster mother and her tissue after I arrive on one blistering afternoon, and yet another foster mom bursting into the bathroom with some toilet paper just as I’ve squatted down, exclaiming, “I wasn’t sure if you had anything to wipe your butt with!”  

With a foster family in Guangxi, Guilin.

Needless to say, these are the memorable moments, the real stuff that fieldwork with families and children is made of, and the intimacy of family life that I’ve been invited to experience, and despite its awkward moments, is quite sacred and thrilling.  The secret of anthropology is that while you’re studying these people, you’re also falling in love with them, becoming moved by their lives and their struggles, and finding that your life won’t be the same without them.

Just a few things I’m pondering as I’m getting ready to leave this place…

Journeywoman

I have had a rough couple of days, a roller coaster of ups and downs, but last Sunday evening I had a glimpse of inspiration and encouragement during my prayer time that has kept me going.

It was not easy, but definitely illuminating to stumble across the notion that the security that I have been craving is a luxury and even a bit of distraction when I consider that it is God, not things or circumstances, who is my security. In other words, I am the type who often worries over the destination, forgetting to enjoy the journey.

But if we believe God really gives us all the tools to meet all of life’s challenges, it is the journey, not the destination, which we are meant to enjoy.

On a particular day recently when I was struggling with being faithful and enjoying the journey, God brought another young Christian Anthropologist into my life who shared her own struggles with me, and I was able to put aside my worries, listening to her struggle, which was oddly cathartic. Ruminating on it, though, I don’t think it’s so odd, really, that God provides us with companions upon the journey, and when we receive their humanity, abiding with one another in this otherwise restless world, we feel the intimacy and the closeness of God’s peace in a tangible way.

That moment was a helpful reminder to me of the intimacy I desire which is paramount and perhaps countercultural, but only in the sense that the pace of the world often doesn’t halt for healing, wholeness, and human connection.

At the same time, what is good and true about culture, much as what is good and true about our God, is the richness of human relationships in all their beauty and brokenness. I guess what I’m getting at it is when I make God and intimacy with other human beings my destination, which is truly returning to my life purpose as a pastor and an anthropologist, I can only revel in what joy there is on the journey and chuckle at my own blindness and anxiety.

Those humbling moments bring tears to my eyes, deep breaths to my chest, and great awe at the goodness and carefulness of all God’s plans which I had doubted.

I pray that I might continue to grow into this type of security, this rootedness in God that brings peace and joy no matter how bumpy the road.  Amen.