Tag Archives: joy

Virtual Coffee Date

If we were sitting together this morning having coffee I would tell you that life has lent its typical roller coaster as of late (seizure for Lucia- she’s doing great now, though; running over a deer carcass with my car for me-it still smells; no bus for Lucia’s first day back to summer school on Monday- a friend came to the rescue; nurse pulled out Lucia’s tube on Thursday morning-ugh; and we lost power on Thursday night during the storm-got it back early Friday morning)… and yet, as you see, with God’s help, we’re finding adventure in adversity and somehow holding it together!

Summer has been so full of unexpected joys–luxurious and productive staycation for us in June, thrilling aquatherapy sessions for Lucia covered by insurance and rides to and fro covered by Medicaid–even as it’s packed with challenges, too–I sent my book manuscript off to the editor in early June, have been teaching summer school at Princeton since July, and start a new job at the seminary in the fall.  All this while the healthcare wars rage on Capitol Hill and we worry as Lucia’s care seems to hang in the balance.

If I seem distracted, unable to focus even in the midst of a sentence, it’s because I am.

But I’m trying to trust that (with the exception of maybe the healthcare battle, deer carcass, and tube being pulled out) there’s a real abundance, blessing, and excess in the way my cup is brimming over, inviting me to embrace this season in its chaotic fullness and to testify to what God’s doing with a life and a heart fittingly overflowing with joy.

 

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If this isn’t joy, I don’t know what is!? Lucia with her father.  My photo.

So that’s what I’m trying to do (more on how that later), not living a life in response to what others are doing but a life that responds to what God is clearly doing, in a big way in my life, my family’s life, and in this world.

Still, if we were talking this morning, I’d look you in the eye and thank you but urge you to keep making those phone calls on behalf of people who are on Medicaid, who need assurance that health care will be there, not just for the healthy but for the sick, the poor, and the needy.  I’ve put some links below that I’ve found helpful and important in wading through the excess of information out there.  I did a podcast on Medicaid that I hope you’ll share with family and friends who want to understand its benefits and even as I still feel that families with people with disabilities face such an uphill battle in terms of understanding and coverage, I am thankful for all the support and hopeful that concerned citizens are making their voices heard.

I was reading Margaret Mead for one of my seminary courses yesterday: I sat there for like two full hours just reading and devouring–it was incredible, and this quote of hers that has been on my mind for weeks sprung to my attention.  I leave it with you in hopes that you may believe that we can change the world, that God is with us even when we forget it, and that joy is abundant and ample and just as human as fear and defeat!

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Some links for you:

 

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How I know my daughter will be (more than) okay on her first day of school

I had this one fear when I realized that Lucia had Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome and would likely live a rather unconventional life.  It wasn’t that she would be different–as an anthropologist (and a minister), I’ve learned to embrace difference, and the foster mothers I studied in China had enumerated the ways in which people very different from us often expand our very knowledge of ourselves and what it means to be human.

My fear wasn’t even that she wouldn’t be loved.  How grateful I am that I’ve never really feared that given what an amazing community of individuals God has placed in Lucia’s life who so dearly value her and endeavor to love her just the way God made her.

But I whispered to a few people and I worried in my heart of hearts that while Lucia might be able to receive love, she might never be able to give or express it.

I don’t think I worried it selfishly (although certainly naively), but I just thought about my own life and how much I’ve learned and received and grown by the very challenging act of learning to love others–not just receiving love–and I guess I couldn’t quite imagine, amidst days on end of shrieks of pain, colossal brain damage, and multiple disabilities, what that would really look like for Lucia.

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Lucia enjoying her balloons on her birthday.

On the eve of her first day of school and just past her third birthday, however, I not only finally see how much I underestimated her and God but how much a person can say without much purposeful movement, without words, or without rolling or crawling or walking or talking.  I underestimated how much joy can emanate from such tiny, immobile person–how by the age of 3 Lucia has taught me more about love than I’d learned in maybe three whole decades–how her way of loving would change everything I thought I knew about God and life and love.

“Do you think she knows you?”  people will ask my husband and me, and there are things we will tell them, like how she cocks her head and her eyes focus for just a split second when she’s really listening or when perhaps her limited vision has allowed her to take in some glimpse of the world.  Or how she recently started to erupt into fits of giggles when she hears her daddy make farting noises or how a slow smile seems to creep over her face when my husband or I set foot upon the creaky boards in our noisy house.  Or how there are times when you take her in your arms and she seems to wrap her rigid little arms around you in a way that makes you feel known and held and real.  

But it’s all very hard to tell or describe, because you can’t break joy or love down to a science.  How do you know your child loves you?  You just do.  There’s a feeling between you and it doesn’t go just one way when it’s felt–it’s a shared cultivation, this business of living and being loved.  And how I ever thought it possible for that love to be unrequited now feels so distant and so foolish and so naive.

birthday
Celebrating Lucia’s third birthday this February.

And so I can’t really find it in myself to worry about how Lucia will do when she goes to school.  Lucia will do just fine.  We know she will grow so much by being around other kids and by learning and by moving–she’ll thrive in a social environment, for sure.  But those people around her–I’m almost more excited for them.  Because they will be loved with a joy so deep and so profound and so beyond any of our imaginations that they will grow in these ways that none of us ever imagine to be possible.

Lucia reminds me how much more there is to be learned from those who seem the least capable, the most impaired, the least adept at the things in life and that there’s something of God’s love in every speck of our beings however imperfectly or perfectly made we may appear.

We love because God first loved us.  Every single one of us.  Even my Lucia.

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.

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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!