Tag Archives: Lent

Holy weakness

In the last few weeks, we’ve settled into a pretty natural rhythm with Lucia’s digestive struggles–constipation and screaming some days, vomiting others, and a lot of delight and sunshine in between. I feel like a broken record when people ask me how she’s doing, because we’re out of the woods we were in in 2018–pain management, feeding intolerance, hospitalizations–and yet, things are never easy. And if I’m honest with you and with myself, I’ve been feeling a bit weak and weary on this journey.

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Lucia crying in pain in mommy’s arms.  All photos mine.

It’s an unsettling, even repulsive feeling for me.

I don’t experience myself as a weak person. I don’t experience Lucia as a weak person either. References to weakness in common culture, even in Christian circles, often smart for me, because it seems like we prefer to instrumentalize and capitalize on other people’s weaknesses, particularly and presumably those with disabilities and diseases, rather than feel or examine our own.

Perhaps the problem is the blame, the shame we instinctively attach to weakness–for my own part it’s attached to the responsibility I carry as Lucia’s mother, a teacher to my students, a scholar in disability, a pastor to others–the feeling that I’ve got everything to lose and nothing to gain in embracing, showing, or even acknowledging my weakness. You can’t be weak when you need to be strong. And in a culture where mothers are so often blamed and scapegoated for society’s anxieties and ills, how can anyone be honest about their own trials, their own weaknesses, their own humanity?

But here’s an even greater truth I know: we’re not meant to heal ourselves.

In fact, if there’s one thing Jesus’s ministry teaches me it’s that healing is first and foremost connected and relational. It can’t happen if we keep to ourselves. No, Jesus’s healing ministry invites us in, all of us. It connects people to each other, in our own needs and messiness as humans.

And at the very center of it is a weak Jesus who wants to be with us in our own weakness! I kinda can’t get over that truth. I struggle to believe it, really.

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Inside the Duke University Chapel on a recent trip.

But what if weakness–vulnerability–is more like permeability, surrender, yielding, and surprise–elements that, like Jesus, are so not of this world that we rarely recognize or behold them as God with us, rather they are conjured and dismissed as mere weaknesses when they appear in plain sight?

So this Lent, I feel myself being asked to do this wild, holy, dangerous thing of living boldly in my weakness–letting you know that I literally forgot to have the oil tank filled and my house had no heat a few weeks ago because I was so scattered and thin. And even then, Jesus didn’t shutter or scoff at my humanity, but loved me (and people loved me, too) anyway. As mothers we’re pretty good at being with our kids when they’re weak, but we cloak our own weakness lest it makes us reprehensible, permeable, out of control, irresponsible. And so last Tuesday, after I took Lucia to her usual doctor’s appointment, she came long to mine. I’d been trucking along with a painful sinus infection, too busy and preoccupied (although clearly not with heating my home!) to even feel or let feel my own weakness.

But a little holy weakness may be just what our world needs–let us not forget that in all this bustle and brilliance and appearances, we are all on our way back toward dust. So in my dusty moments, let me be reminded of not just death but the hope and healing of the cross. I mean, you really don’t have the cross without a fragile, incarnate God made weak, and yet holy. And so if weakness begets sanctification, let me be bold in my weakness, heartfelt in cleaving to God and to others in this world that worships strong.

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Happy moment with Lucia.
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Lent just in time

I realized that it’s only fitting that I started blogging again yesterday during Lent, because as history serves, Lent has lent (I just can’t help with the puns…you know Easter is on April Fools, right?!) a good portion of inspiration.

So I’ve compiled, just in time for Good Friday, a dose of Lenten posts for your contemplative reading.

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Egyptian wilderness.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

I pray that this season has been meaningful and full for you and that you find so much comfort and hope and peace even at the sight of our wounded savior on the cross.  May we linger on that cross and the grave with renewed passion and waiting and expectation of the hope to come on Easter Sunday.  Amen.

Deeply Needy, Deeply Grateful

The God of Silence

Thanking God for the woes

Everyday Listening

Forgoing Security for Faith

Practicing Gratefulness

An Invitation to Listen

Dirt

Where is the Joy?

 

Forgoing security for faith

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Inside Notre Dame, Paris. Photo by Evan Schneider.

A few months ago I stood in the sanctuary of our church on Good Friday and held a rock in my hand on which I had scrawled the word, “security.”  In my adult life, I have found it consistently difficult to live amidst uncertainty, but I don’t know what in that particular moment compelled me to pray to let go in that holy season of Lent of my preoccupation with security.

But I did.  And the journey forth from that point has been anything but smooth.

In March I was offered a very good tenure-track job at an elite Christian institution–a dream job on paper–but one I ended up turning down because the social services in the Midwest couldn’t accommodate my daughter with special needs, there’d be no job for my husband there, and I couldn’t imagine leaving behind my church ministry for a full time academic job.  Then in the following months as we began to look for houses in New Jersey, we lost a bid on a particularly promising house.  When our offer was finally accepted on another, the negotiation proved so arduous that the deal looked to be off any second.  Even now as we are poised to close on the house, the date has been so far shifted back due to repairs that we find ourselves with a month and a half gap in housing, with a special needs baby and a slew of nurses in tow!

As it looked less and less likely that we’d settle with the sellers on this house, my usually dogged, meticulous husband became strangely calm.  At first I mistook his stoicism for resignation, fearing him despondent, assuming he’d given up.  Perhaps he had given up in  a way, but as he described his feelings I realized he’d found solace in either outcome–he wasn’t complacent but rather his perspective had been remarkably altered by our circumstances.  He’d given up on the ideal of the house, but in so doing he’d found a certain measure of security.

A week or so later, knowing we had very little money for his birthday presents this year, I looked at him with tears in my eyes and told him that I’d discovered that a house would be lovely, but he and Lucia are my real home.

Facing a few months of being a nomad is relatively moderate when we are seeing some of the greatest refugee crises unfold around the world.  In fact, just a few prior, I preached on the trite act of tidying up amidst such forced evacuations.  But I also have rather wanted to shake God for so dramatically “answering” my prayer these past few months.  What do you want me to learn here, Lord, I find myself puzzling.  Why must it all be such a struggle, I wonder, exasperated.

And then I wonder how I would have arrived at these conclusions, this notion of home, without wandering a bit in the wilderness, and I realize that I, like my husband, am also dogged and obstinate.  Sure, I am deeply intellectual, thought-filled, and intricate, yet, even I could not think myself through these insecurities, but rather had to ultimately feel my way to faith.  In the poverty of my thoughts, my own excruciating inability to provide for myself and my family I have found, perhaps, the greatest provisions–the gifts of family that God has so graciously given.  I have found in God not comfort but a depth of security that though practically confounding is deeply needed.  I am learning, I think, how to struggle less and live a bit more, to hold life’s riches close to and let the rest fall away.  

I am learning, I think, to live by faith.

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Lucia on the porch enjoying the sun.  My photo.

Everyday listening

Our church has been focusing on ways of connecting with God and one another during Lent.  And instead of giving up something for Lent over the past few years, I’ve also tried to make a concerted effort to pay attention to God’s work in my life and the lives of others.

But it’s not that easy.

This past weekend, instead of a sermon, our student pastor led us in an Ignatian Examen prayer practice where we reflected on the day prior, examining our emotions, our failures, our desires, and God’s calling on our lives.  It was such a simple gift–those fifteen music-filled moments during which I shut my eyes and reflected on all that God is doing.

But I’m often missing it.

Like so many of us, I’m a do-er, a thinker, and in my eagerness to use my time wisely, I forget that listening to God is time that is never wasted.  I’ve been doing  a spiritual discipline during Lent where instead of jumping into tasks when I arrive in the office, I put on music and write for just one minute, reflecting on my fears, worries, and where God is in the midst of my life.

And God is there.

Beneath all of those very present needs and fears, God is always there–working and patiently waiting for me to quiet myself and connect.  In my own Ignatian Examen last weekend, I realized I’m missing valuable moments of connection with others and with God in my life.  In this week, I haven’t made great strides, but I’m thankful to God for making me aware of this connection that exists even when I fight or ignore it.

What’s so powerful about the Ignatian Examen is that while our moments of reflection are but fleeting, God’s call and action on and in our lives is omnipresent.  I realize how, not just during Lent, but everyday, I need to commit to turning off my mind and using my heart to listen to what God is doing.

What about you?  How do you connect with God?  How do you listen and find meaning in the everyday?

On unconditional love

Since Holy Week, I’ve been thinking about unconditional love.  

Do you have someone in your life who loves you unconditionally, for whom you could do no wrong, or even if you did, every wrong would be and is forgivable?  Do you have someone who knows all your faults and flaws and seems to love you the more for them?  Do you know someone whose love for you is constant, not based on what you do or what you achieve, but comes from a seemingly endless and otherworldly source?

If so, how do you respond to such love?

As I continued to ponder unconditional love, it occurred to me that there seems to be but one human response to it, which is fear.  When you discover that someone loves you unconditionally, you also discover that such love cannot be earned, achieved, or repaid, and it’s a scary feeling to find  yourself forever indebted to another.  That fear can turn toward denial and betrayal as we try to run as far away from such love as we can, in order that we can establish our own independence and find a life free from obligation or humility.

It’s what happened to Judas, Pilate, even to Peter.

Spring on the Princeton University campus.
Spring on the Princeton University campus.

But if we recognize our own humanity, our own futility, and instead of running, revel in the awe and wonder that such love exists, and turn to acceptance as opposed to denial, the only response to such love is praise.

We are not like the women at the tomb that morning who did not know that he had arisen and yet, faithfully returned.  We are children of the promise, filled with the knowledge that his command to love one another at that fateful last supper would be fulfilled by his ultimate act of unconditional love on the cross.  

We love because He first loved us.  May we spend our lives pondering not only that love, but how to serve Him with a life full of praise.

Grace for eternity

Spring on the university campus.  Iphone photo by the husband.
Signs of spring on the university campus. Iphone photo by the husband.

There is a mantra among new parents, oft repeated and spoken with a mix of exhaustion and hope, that “everything is temporary.”  

That is, the sleepless nights, the afternoons filled with crying, the growth spurts, they’re all necessary phases, but blips on the map of childhood so quickly turning to youth and adulthood, and life.  Young parents remark that if you can keep this perspective that everything is temporary, you can endure anything…temporarily.

I do find this advice helpful and comforting, not only for parenting, but for other aspects of life.  And I find it similar and perhaps more poignant alongside the wisdom that we are to abide in God as God abides in us.

Abiding has always been instructive to me, because it reminds me not to project outward from my fears, but to trust that there is more than this moment.  Rather than the existential promise of all of life being temporary, abiding reminds me of the importance of choosing and praying for faithactive, strident faith–that humbly believes and resolute, unswerving hope to accompany it.

It is only through abiding with God, gladly placing some of my fear and worry at his feet, and coming plainly to him with my raw hunger and thirst, that I am reminded that God abides with me not temporarily, but for eternity, ordering all moments around a life-giving sacrifice that brings eternal grace and peace.

This is what I choose and try to fixate on when life seems mundane and contrived, that what is extraordinary about the ordinary is God’s grace that makes each morning fresh and new, grace for more than this moment–for eternity.

 

An invitation to listen

As many of you who have been reading my blog during Lent have apprehended, I’ve been pretty transfixed by the simple instructions on spirituality in Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.  But the other day as I read through the final chapters of the book as I nursed my baby before sunrise, I realized that in the busy-ness of my mind and the eagerness of my heart, and despite the silence, I’d forgotten about listening.

I’d forgotten that what sent me on this deep spiritual quest during Lent was the increase in silence in my life since the birth of this baby, and the subsequent invitation to let God fill those silences.  Since that realization, I’d picked up Foster’s book in an effort to be more intentional about my spirituality, and therefore, I’d been the one filling the silence with all sorts of things, from counting precious hours of sleep to pondering the tasks for the day ahead, and even my devotional study.

This is not another mommy guilt blog about how I should have been treasuring the moments with my infant suckling at my breast, but rather a mere realization that I hadn’t been faithful enough in those moments to allow God’s voice to be louder than my own.  In a previous post, I shared Foster’s words about how our fears about entering into the silence often reflect a distrust of God, and for me it’s no different.  I recently read this post from the author of the blog, Becoming Minimalist, in which he ponders our collective societal aversion to silence.  Joshua Becker writes, “While anyone can experience silence at any time by finding a quiet place to sit for an extended period of time, I have found solitude does not occur naturally in our noise-centered world. It must be intentionally pursued by each of us.”

In my own post on “The God of Silence,” I talk about the value for me in practicing centering prayer and reframing the experience of silence not as one of absence but of presence.

But I still struggle.

I still doubt over and over whether God will truly meet me in the silence.  

But what if God was already there?  What if the essence of God was that God goes before us, is ever-present, always waiting on us when we call?

My sister's photo of the first flower of 2014 in her neck of the woods.
My sister’s photo of the first flower of 2014 in her neck of the woods.

Perhaps that was why some of the words from the liturgy this weekend at church seemed to jump off the page.  We prayed together, confessing, “Fear and worry hold us back.  We confess that we try our very best, carrying the weight ourselves.  We gladly hand some of our worry and fear to you today.”

What a simple action, I thought, handing our worry and fear over to God, and yet we cling to these things as if we love them more than peace, hope, and love.

And as we took communion, we spoke, “When we come to this table together, we trust God will satisfy our hunger and our thirst.  Jesus shared this meal with a hungry crowd long ago and he shares it with us today.  Let us bring our hunger and our thirst to the table of the one who called himself the Living Bread.”

Fear and worry, hunger and thirst, these are the little that Jesus asks of us, and yet we cling to our noisy lives with such cowardice.  I don’t know about you, but the thought that our mighty God wants our heartache, and that God is so pure and humble and innocent and present, moves me.  The least I could do is listen, right?

And so I’m returning to that simple message on this foggy Tuesday morning.  I’m returning to the silence with my ears attuned to the presence of God.  I’m bringing my fear and my worry, my hunger and my thirst, and I’m trusting that God is already there, listening, as I listen for him.

 

Where is the joy?

I’m nearing the end of my Lenten devotional, Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, so besides needing another short book to fill the rest of April (any suggestions, guys?), I’m also finally starting to discover the meaning behind the curious title.

As Foster writes, “Joy is the end result of the Spiritual Disciplines’ functioning in our lives.  God brings about the transformation of our lives through the Disciplines, and we will not know genuine joy until there is transforming work within us…Celebration comes when the common ventures of life are redeemed” (Foster 193).

Plymouth, MA.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Plymouth, MA. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Foster describes how we can’t take a shortcut to experiencing and exhibiting joy, but we can certainly experience joy through seeking God in prayer, confession, service, and worship, and it is God who is the source of this great gift.

That last line, “celebration comes when the common ventures of life are redeemed,” reminds me of a reflection I read this morning from Micha Boyett where she discusses the ordinary tasks of readying her two boys for school alongside the rather extraordinary miracle that Jesus does by turning water into wine.  Boyett’s pastor described the miracle as Jesus “replacing the joy,” and then points to our own lives, saying, “Look where you’re frantic and that’s probably the place where you’re trying to find joy.”

But the challenge is that finding joy, requires little of us and so much of Jesus, that we often spend the better part of our days scouring and scrubbing only to miss the promise of the dirt, the simplicity, the ordinary holiness of our bent up, misshapen lives.

Foster goes onto discuss a spirit of carefree celebration where we rely completely on God, and experience radical joy through our trust in God’s greatness rather than ourselves.  I look at the last few weeks and this controversy over World Vision’s decision and retraction for hiring gay staff in committed relationships, and I wonder, where is the joy?  I look around me at churches working arduously and desperately to spawn last ditch ministries to save themselves, and I wonder, where is the joy?  I look at each of us going about our busy lives, failing to truly see those in front of us, to listen, to love, and to rely on God and one another, and I don’t see strength or independence or carefree celebration, but fear and greed and angst.

I certainly don’t see joy.

The Sonoran Desert.  Tucson, Arizona.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The Sonoran Desert. Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Evan Schneider.

The Church in America is in need of God’s joyful transformation.  We need less of us and more of God, less of our will and more of God’s grace and love and mercy.  And it’s only by way of the cross, that we are found by grace, and the we experience such true, unadulterated joy.

We don’t often think of Lent and the journey to the cross as a journey toward joy.  We often place the story of Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus’ death on the cross in two completely different literary categories, but what if we are called to live out the whole of our faith as ordinary, yet joyful people?  What if the transformation God enacts on the cross and in each one of us amounts to replacing the joy of humanity, and we’ve been missing something as we try so hard to just “get things right?”

We need look no further than our ordinary lives to answer the question, “where is the joy?”, and yet we struggle against what God has done for us.  We need look no further than the cup of wine to remind us of both Jesus’ holy sacrifice and great joyous celebration.  Let us accept the joyous transformation that Jesus brings to our lives, and let us live with great reliance on God, great grace for one another, and above all, great joy.

A photo so full of joy.  Bridal party at my friend's wedding on Chesapeake Bay.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A photo so full of joy. Bridal party at my friend’s wedding on Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Amen.

 

 

Dirt

As I headed out to the canal path yesterday afternoon for my first run since the baby, I was dismayed to find that between winter and spring in New Jersey (and many other parts of the world) comes another less beloved season: the season of mud.

It seemed no sooner had the ground thawed that the bulldozers came to clear the path, pressing the treads of their tires deep into the fresh earth and leaving behind nothing but brown as far as the eye could see.

But as I plugged along, bemoaning the stark landscape and the thick frosting of mud quickly coating my tennis shoes, I caught a whiff of something fresh, crisp, and almost sweet.  And as the smell of fresh, earthy mud wafted through my nostrils, I was reminded that beneath that brown soil lay roots, soon to be buds, soon to be new life.

I was reminded that we can’t have the new life without the dirt and the worms and the mud.

We often want to skip over the hard parts in life.  In our spiritual lives, we want to be rid of the dark nights of the soul, the calls to accountability, the wandering in the desert.  But it’s no accident that Easter falls at the end of the season of mud, which we call Lent, a season caked with sins that can’t be wiped clean unless we unveil them in the light of day.

The other morning in the wee hours while I nursed my baby, I listened to a sermon by our pastor on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  In it, she asks, what is the dirt that sticks to us when the day is done?  (11:00), and who are the people who we would let interact with our dirt? (14:12)  

In other words, while Lent is in many ways a personal and solitary journey of coming to grips with our own sin and the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross, it’s also a corporate season of sharing our joys, our fears, and our darkness, and of washing the dirt from one another’s feet, just as Christ first washed the feet of his disciples.

Botanical gardens in Massachusetts.  My photo.
Botanical gardens in Massachusetts. My photo.

So as spring draws near and as we walk through this holy season of Lent together, I encourage you not to eschew the muddy bits of your life, but to let God and others behold that dirt, from which will spring new, eternal life.  I encourage you to let Christ lift your muddy feet into his clean hands, and to anticipate the miracle of the cross to come.

Amen.

The God of silence

“One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless.  We are so accustomed to relying on words to manage and control others.  If we are silent, who will take control?  God will take control, but we will never let him take control unless we trust him.  Silence is intimately related to trust.”

—Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p. 100-101

Have you ever doubted whether God was really there because God’s silence seemed to indicate otherwise?  Have you ever cried out to God, wondering how God could remain silent in the face of hardship, pain, or injustice?

Conversely, have you ever sat in a car or beside a friend or a family member in complete silence and felt deep companionship and comfort, but hardly any need to speak?  Why is it that we can trust others with such deep, holy silences, and yet when we encounter silence in our spiritual lives, we assume that God is woefully absent?

Merrill Creek Reservoir.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Merrill Creek Reservoir. Photo by Evan Schneider.

One compelling aspect for me of adopting the discipline of centering prayer has been this reframing of the concept and experience of silence as the presence, rather than the absence of God in our lives.  As Foster writes above, in the silence, God takes control from our greedy grasp, but God cannot do so if we refuse to trust God.

During this time of Lent, I invite you to reflect on where God has been silent in your life, and how you might cede some control and trust to God in those areas.  As you do so, imagine God’s hands, busily, yet quietly working.  Believe that silence does not indicate God’s absence, but rather God’s presence, God’s faithful accompaniment to you, in deep, holy, silent communion.  Trust that after those dark nights of the soul, the sun will rise on another, better morning.  And find it in your heart to let go and trust God with all of your life.  Even and perhaps, especially when you feel weak and utterly helpless, our God may be silent, but God is there.

Amen.