Tag Archives: joy

What God Did

A few weeks ago I sat in the pews as my colleague and senior pastor led the prayers of the people, and I lifted one for Lucia’s upcoming surgery.  My voice wavering, I asked for prayers not just for the doctors, for health, and for our little girl, but for my husband and for me.  I explained that in facing another surgery that could have mixed results, I’d grown a bit weary and leery, and my faith was faltering.  It’s so hard as a parent to make decisions for your child that involve both risk and reward.  Lucia was doing so well, and I wondered whether another surgery was the most faithful decision.  Could the congregation be my faith, could they lift prayers for us even as we were feeling weak? I wondered aloud.

Mind you, I’m one of the pastors of this church, and I wasn’t sure how prayers for faith from one of the spiritual leaders in their midst would be received.  But not a person came up to me that Sunday scolding me for my weakness, my fears, or my lack of faith.  Instead, I remember lots of assurances that prayers would be lifted, many looks of concern on their faces as I spoke my prayer, and many knowing, earnest nods as I let them know that even for a pastor, sometimes faith is hard to come by.

PTS Snow
Fresh snowfall on the Princeton Seminary campus.  All photos are mine.

Several weeks have passed, and Lucia’s surgery has not only brought her incredible comfort from reflux, but she is now feeding into her stomach (instead of her small intestine), an intervention that seems to bring her the satisfaction of feeling full and the comfort and freedom of having natural breaks from feeding throughout the day.  However, it is hard to describe the extent of the intangible transformation for her and for us: it feels as if there’s a part of her spirit that has been set free, and we are all growing closer, as she’s more alert, communicative, and joyful.

As I reflect on the miraculous results of this surgery and this transformation, I am left with no other explanation than that God did that.  This summer I felt that Lucia’s intestinal feeding tube had provided her unprecedented comfort, happiness, and tranquility, but these past few weeks, a transformed Lucia has smiled up at us, and I am in awe and so deeply grateful.

Snow and blue skies
Blue skies and the grad tower peek through the snowfall.  

But God didn’t just surprise us by transforming Lucia; rather such transformation is apparent in us as parents because of the faithful who love Lucia for who she has been, will be, and who she is.  I’m writing this today because it’s so important to talk about what God has done and what God can do even when we struggle to believe, how God’s faithfulness transcends our wildest imagination.  And I believe that those people in the pews who love Lucia so unconditionally are part and parcel of who I know God to be.  What a gift it is to be part of a community of faith who accept me for my weaknesses, who pray for my child, and who do these things not because they expect results or know what’s in store, but because they desire to trust God–they are the faithful.

And I am so grateful that in faith, we don’t have to go it alone–that God’s transformation happens through people, through prayer, and in us.  I am so grateful that after all these years God is still full of surprises and one of those is that even when you falter, there’s faith enough for the least of these, for the faithless, the weary and the leery.  In a world which doesn’t always recognize Lucia as fearfully and wonderfully made, it’s kind of miraculous that I’m surrounded by people who actually keep reminding me of that.

And the fact that God did all that–well, these days my faith runneth over!  And you can borrow it when you need it someday, I’m deliriously humbled and happy to owe you all a prayer or two.  Perhaps that how faith works: we owe it all to God and to one another, but in being bound to one another, we are set free.

Lucia smiles
One of those sweet smiles that makes the world stop!

 

Virtual Coffee Date

Princeton University campus.  Gest Asian Studies library.  My photo.
Princeton University campus. Gest Asian Studies library. My photo.

It’s bad blogger etiquette, isn’t it, to post about this season of fullness and never fill one another in on what the true challenges and joys are, and generally how it’s going?  

For me, fullness is a mixed blessing.  It’s been finishing the writing and revising of my dissertation on Sunday mornings, which has been necessary and fulfilling, but has taken us away from our dear church community and made me wander a bit from God.  So fullness, ironically, in the vein of confession, has included a spiritual desert for me, in which I’ve been reticent to go to God with all of my worries and concern, for fear of finding answers that I haven’t wanted to hear or face.  Fullness, though, has also been the everyday work of plodding along with life, filled with the everyday joy of seeing our daughter and our family grow together.  It’s included brave car trips with a screaming baby, on the end of which we were fortunately met by treasured friends.

I’m starting to come to terms with the idea (and this was evident to me as I peered through tears writing the acknowledgements to my dissertation in the wee hours of another Sunday morning feeling so humbled by so many people who had a hand in it) that when we are in the blessing and sacred presence of others, despite our own penchants to push God away, God is never far away at all.  I am amazed that despite my tendency to drift in this season, God keeps close through the ministry of others.  As our pastor reminded us this Sunday, “that’s how God gets things done.”

I’ve been so focused on getting my own things done in this season of fulness that I often forget how faithfully God has stood beside me at this time and all along.  In returning to acknowledge God, it makes sense that my first action, before repentance even, would be praise.  Even as this makes cognitive sense to me, I’m still struggling a bit this morning.  I pray that I find those words of praise even as my spirit is weak.

Where has God stood beside you in your life?  What is God doing for you now?  How is your season of fullness coming along?

On fullness

Fall in Guangdong province, China.
Fall in Guangdong province, China.  Click for photo credit.

Psalm 23 (NRSV)

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 
   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake. 

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me. 

You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows. 
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
   my whole life long.

 Psalm 23 is so short and sweet and familiar that for many of us the words tumble off our lips without a thought.  But it’s no wonder that so many have clung to it over the ages, repeated its promises in the darkest hours and been comforted by its imagery in the depths of despair.  Its simplicity and eloquence are timeless and poignant.

And yet, there’s more to it than comfort and consolation.  There are practical assurances that we will walk through dark valleys in this life despite our faith, that we will encounter enemies, and that these hardships are not mutually exclusive from goodness and mercy.
Red Beach, China.
Red Beach, China. Click for photo credit.
These past few weeks I’ve been a little overwhelmed by the busy-ness of my life: childcare and feedings crammed between preparing for classes, editing my dissertation, and applying to jobs.  And since I’m so averse to busy-ness, somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that framing that stress and pressure not as busy-ness but as fullness allow me to better see and experience the wash of blessings, difficulties included, in my life.
In the psalm’s narrative, it is following the darkest valley that the table is prepared, the psalmist’s head is anointed, and his “cup overflows.”  Therefore, when our cup overflows it doesn’t necessarily speak to the ease of life or conventional happiness, but a life well lived, a deep, resounding, and mature joy, and a conviction that God has been and will be there despite the valley, the enemies, and the fear.
Fall in gorgeous Jiangxi, China.
My favorite season in gorgeous Jiangxi, China. Click for photo credit.
There is so much comfort for me in sleepless nights and rushed days to trust and believe that this season is not simply busy, but wonderously full. Full of hard work and deep joy, full of hard decisions and deep love, and full of uncertainty, but filled with grace.  I take heart and solace in the fullness of life and the promise that goodness and mercy are not fleeting, but that I shall forever dwell in the house of the Lord.
Amen.

Signs of a life well-lived

I remember before Lucia was born pondering the items we put on our baby registry and strategizing with my husband about how we could keep the baby stuff to a minimum.  We have a really small apartment and we didn’t want to buy all sorts of unnecessary items that would clutter our space and our lives.

Nearly six months after her birth, I would say we’ve stuck to that minimalist lifestyle rather faithfully–we have a few larger baby items, but most of those are borrowed or used, and we’ve been calculating regarding the toys and small items we’ve acquired over time.

However, keeping all of those items we use daily in their right and perfect place in another story and a losing battle.  Inevitably pacifiers, books, toys, and burp cloths clutter the coffee table and couch, Lucia’s play gym remains on the guest bed in her bedroom, and the bathroom becomes overladen with washcloths in the sink and hanging to dry.

What’s funny is this very thing that we agonized about–having Lucia’s clutter take over our apartment and our lives–is something that now brings me great joy.  Now that she’s here, I don’t mind living with her stuff, being reminded of who she is by the things that mark her very central place in our life.  In fact, I’m very happy to let her things lay strewn about our apartment as a sign that we’re living life with her, not perfectly, but with deep commitment and love.

This is one of the things that’s surprised me about life and parenthood–learning to love the mess of it all more than I imagined I could.

What wisdom of the messes in your own life have surprised you?

**I liked my friend Erin Lane‘s post on a related topic, and this Washington Post article by a man who admits blaming his wife for a messy house and being in the wrong.

 

On learning

A few weeks ago in a teachers training, we read the first few paragraphs of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.”  In it, Nietzsche outlines the bleak philosophy (Nietzsche, bleak?!) that all (human) knowing is but prideful deception.  As is my typical reaction to such existentialism (and which tapped into my fears that my life spent as a graduate student has been little but frivolity), I sensed a dark cloud hovering.

But as I’ve ruminated on the depth of Nietzsche’s claims these past few weeks, I’ve realized with deep refreshment, that while perhaps knowing often goes hand in hand with self-deception, learning can remain a joyful, humbling pursuit.  

Over those next few weeks of teacher training, which I had dreaded for their presumed repetitiveness and monotony, instead, I discovered how much I was learning from my peers about both teaching writing and my own writing process.  Diving back into my dissertation project and having others read and respond to my work has positioned me not merely in the realm of expert but also budding novice.  Finally, in composing a sermon this past week, in which I imagined reading the story of the Good Samaritan from the perspective of the wounded man rather than the thoughtful Samaritan, I was reminded that seeking to serve others often begins with listening, receiving, and learning.

The D&R canal in the summer.  My photo.
The D&R canal in the summer. My photo.

I remember in college, when I took an elaborate spiritual gifts inventory, how surprised and rather deflated I was to find one of my top gifts listed as curiosity.  Is that really a spiritual gift, I mused?  What good is curiosity about others and about the world to God?  Many years later, after pursuing higher education for nearly fourteen years, I often wonder the same thing.  I worry that the career of a graduate student, at which I have spent almost the last decade of my young life, is not an exercise in self-deception, futility, or frivolity.

But when I think on what fascinates me about the world, what drives my curiosity, and that is not a deep understanding or knowing, but a desire to know and understand, I consider that anthropology might just be my calling.  When I recall that being in the position of graduate student, one is always in pursuit of knowledge, but never quite the apprehender, the expert, or the master of that knowledge, I relish the deep passion and humility one must have for apprenticeship and learning to be a student.  And when I remember that all ministry begins from a place of common humanity, and how much I learn day in and day out from others, I feel quite at home.

I realize how blessed I have been to be able to be a diligent student of ministry and anthropology all these years, and how essential it is that when I step into those roles of preacher and teacher that I do so with the heart of a student.  God is always teaching, and we are always learning.  It’s when we become certain of our knowledge and prideful of that fact that life, as Nietzsche warns, and we, become a tangle of twisted lies.

May we always be curious, may we always be humble, may we always be eager to hear the voice of God in those around us.  May we be life-long students who never tire of the mysteries of God and life and the joys of learning.  Amen.

On true love and throwing progress to the wind

I’m slowly realizing that one of the most challenging parts of parenting is that it’s incredibly difficult to predict or gauge progress.

The Delaware Raritan Canal at the height of spring.  My photo.
The Delaware Raritan Canal at the height of spring. My photo.

I’m so eager to know what I’m doing, the energy that I’m putting into my daughter, is being directed toward a purpose.  Perhaps this comes from years of being a student, where hours of reading and writing usually directly translate into better grades, admittance into higher education programs, or awards and grants.  I am addicted to progress, but I’m realizing that it’s a worldly ideal that can often be crippling in its hegemonic and normalizing ways.

That led me to thinking the other night, what if we threw progress and developmental markers and perfect sleep to the wind as parents and focused on loving the children in front of us?  I remember when I was awaiting this baby my spiritual director told me that children first and foremost need love, and I remember feeling empowered, thinking, now that I can do.

But love isn’t always easy.

There are a million human ways we  complicate and condition and crowd out love.  Suddenly love begins to look and feel more like precision, weight, or caution, because we’ve replaced it with our own ideals, our desires, or our own assuming needs.

But true love is life altering in that it demands a total shift in the way we view and live life.  We must change if we are to love graciously and selflessly rather than greedily and humanly.

D&R Canal.  My photo.
D&R Canal. My photo.

This is why, I think, with parenting the “progress” is always paradoxically barely perceptible and earth-shattering.  We find that simultaneously across the long nights and endless crying, both nothing and everything has shifted.  We realize that despite our being wedded to a hegemonic view of progress, change and growth took their meandering course.

Not surprisingly, no amount of sheer human will and determination moves our children to progress, but rather the painstaking effort of love nurtures their being.  Our children rely so perfectly on us, but we come only by struggle to rely on God.  And yet the release of our lives to God is simply the greatest source of change imaginable.

20140501_103525

No longer searching or bound by our desire for progress, we are released into grace and love.  We are able to love because God first loved us.  And when we live with the knowledge of that fact, we find joy and contentment in the children that we have, not merely the people that they are becoming.

Epiphany: Pondering it all in our hearts

Christmas has come and gone.

In this season, paradoxically called epiphany, we ask our neighbors, “how was your holiday?,” we un-trim the tree, dismantle the decorations, put away the nativity, and resolve to return to our regularly scheduled lives.

But what are our regularly scheduled lives and how do they fit with the violent breaking in of our God in advent, the not so sterilized versions of that stable birth, a season of unadulterated joy, and a baby savior who takes away the sin of the world?  Isn’t the meaning of epiphany, “the manifestation of God,” enough to send us on grand pilgrimages like the wise men and change us forever?

This past advent, our pastor preached passionately about the need to take the nativity off the mantle, to become acquainted with a rather inconvenient and culturally inappropriate pregnancy, the messy squalor of the stable, and welcome this paradoxical savior and all his rupture into our neat, little worlds.  It pains me that we, who have experienced the greatest hope and joy of this season, can think of nothing to ask our children but “what did you get for Christmas?”  How have we really taken the nativity off the mantle if our lives look the same in this holy season of epiphany?  And how can we welcome epiphany if we resolve to go back to our regularly scheduled lives?

In this holy season of afterbirth, joy, and wonder, I encourage you to stop and reflect on the gift of a savior.  I encourage you to ask not just about travel, family, and presents, but the epiphanies that others have experienced in light of the grace we have received.

As Mary pondered all these things in her heart, so might we ponder how Christ has been reborn in us, and how because of this, 2014 will never be the same.

Virtual Coffee Date

Hibiscus in the President's Garden, Princeton University.  My photo.
Hibiscus in the President’s Garden, Princeton University. My photo.

If we were having coffee this morning, I would wonder aloud whether this coming of age thing is supposed to be so fraught with life and death, divorce and birth, loss and love.  Sometimes the co-mingling of so much joy and pain, so much sunshine and devastation, seems cruel, contrite, and certainly, inconceivable.  I think it’s partly this stage of life, where friends and family are facing such crossroads, but I also think that living life fully necessarily takes us into deep sorrow and deep joy, and we have little control regarding where one ends and the other begins.

Inside Notre Dame, Paris.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Inside Notre Dame, Paris. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I’m left with a sense of awe regarding how the God of the universe holds our fragile lives in such a charged balance.  And a sense of humility for how little I understand of this life, how without words I find myself when witnessing deep pain or deep joy.

But in the midst of the unknown, I find gratitude creeping over me.

What more is there in this life than accompanying one another through the valleys and the mountains?  What more is there to be being human than these experiences and the ways we respond in love and care to one another?  And how much more there is to this God we seek to know more fully!  I’d tell you that even when I can’t see or feel God and I doubt what God is doing, I trust in God’s peace that passes all understanding, I trust in the peace we lend to one another as sinners, yet bearers of Christ, when worldly peace is utterly unfathomable.

My family and I walking in a wash in Arizona.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
My family and I walking in a wash in Arizona. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I’d also tell you how I’ve hit something of a stride with this dissertation and how very thankful I am to be in a field where I can be both analytical and creative.  I’d tell you how nervous and excited I am to be teaching at Drew University this fall and be learning with students there about Chinese family culture.  I’d tell you about the anticipation of planning to receive our Chinese pastor friends at Princeton Seminary and Princeton University this fall, the joy I feel at hosting them at our home when they were so generous in showing us around years ago.

And finally, I’d tell you about how gorgeous these final days of summer in New Jersey have been, how there’s something about the sun coming through the window in the morning, the hummingbird on the porch, and the encroaching crispness of the evening hours that reminds me of hope in the midst of darkness.  Just last fall, New Jersey experienced much of the brunt of Super Storm Sandy, but since that time, nature has been healing herself and healing many of us in the process.

Fuzzy photo of the humming bird feeding on our porch.  My photo.
Fuzzy photo of the humming bird feeding on our porch.

Yes, in the midst of pain, there is peace.  It’s not immediate or instant, but comes about slowly, with grace and goodness, and we are its bearers in a fallen world.

Photo Credit.

What is your hope or your peace this day?

P.s. I’ve linked up all the virtual coffee date posts in a new category so you can find them easily.  Check it out!

On gratitude and sacrifice

I finally listened to the speech Michelle Obama’s gave at the DNC this morning.  

My husband and I have been largely hiding behind a rock this election season, avoiding politics talk, genuinely overwhelmed by the spars, the divisions, and the pettiness when just a month ago we were living in a nation with five times as many people as this one, and where poverty, human rights, and children’s lives hang in the balance.

But, perhaps predictably, (and don’t worry, I’m not about to really get political here), the First Lady’s speech did strike a chord with me today.  Ironically, the narrative of sacrifice and commitment that she and President Obama expressed in regards to their parents reminded me of some of the culture of filial piety, once so vibrant and pervasive, that is beginning to erode in China today.

But her words about gratitude and sacrifice and humility, about learning from their parents that “so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us, to the janitors who kept our school clean” also reminded me of my own family.

My Grandfather and I this past November.

The story she told about her father struggling to walk with MS and shifting uncomfortably out of bed each morning reminded me of my grandfather who prayed everyday on his knees despite the paralysis in his own legs.  My mother has MS, so she not only knew what it was like to watch her father struggle with his paralysis, but I know what it is like to know and be inspired by someone who does not let her physical disabilities hold her back from serving others.

The sacrifice Mrs. Obama mentioned that her parents made to send her to college reminds me of my own father’s years of getting up before the sun came up and coming home after it went down, all so my sisters and I didn’t have to struggle to pay for school.  It, this gift of education, was my parents’ ultimate gift to their children and only later in life do I relish what a sacrifice it meant and what devotion it took.

My parents on Thanksgiving, 2011.

Mrs. Obama’s stories remind me of the way my dad’s parents’ scraped together during the Great Depression, their determination to live and make do with what they had, and the money my maternal grandparents left to me as they passed on, despite the fact that they always lived with so little themselves.

As Mrs. Obama spoke I realized why these stories are so powerful: they bind us to one another.  They express the gratitude to those who came before us for the lives we live today.  They recognize that the strength of humanity, not just Americans, but of all people, is this willingness to submit that perhaps their dreams won’t come true in their lifetime, but they can come true in the lives of others.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, Gramma and Grandpa, Grandma and Grandad, for loving me so unconditionally, for giving me a life full of possibility and joy, despite what your own lives may have lacked.  Your love inspires me everyday, and I hope when people compliment me on my successes, I remember the people, you, who made them possible.

Who inspires you today?  Who do you thank for your successes?  Who taught you about gratitude, and humility, and sacrifice?