Tag Archives: loss

Our preparations are not our own

I was really humbled to preach the first sermon in Advent at chapel yesterday at the seminary.  For those of you who have been asking, here is a transcript of the sermon.  

Blessings on your Advent preparations!

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Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John.  Photo credit: Sweet Publishing/FreeBibleimages.org.

As begin our journey in Advent this morning, we recall that the narrative of Jesus’s birth in Luke is intertwined with the parallel story of John the Baptist’s birth and his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth.   In verses 5-20 of chapter 1, we are plunged into what Joel Green calls “the small town struggles of a little-known priest and his wife…the atmosphere is permeated by the piety of Second Temple Judaism and Jewish hopes for divine intervention.”

Now we’re living in a very different context than Zechariah and Elizabeth, but they feel like people we seminarians can relate to. They’re pretty faithful people. They’re really faithful people. Zechariah is a priest who’s given the honor of entering the sanctuary and offering incense in conjunction with sacrifices. The scripture tells us that he and his wife Elizabeth “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

But in placing their childlessness directly after their high religious and social status, the scripture isn’t just showing us their social disgrace but reminding us of their suffering. For Zechariah and Elizabeth who scripture tells us are “both getting on in years” we can only imagine that if they have been struggling to conceive for quite some time, they have likely known the pain of losing children, carrying hope and letting go of it.

And so when the angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah, fear overwhelms him and though he’s told he and his wife will rejoice at the birth of a son John who will be great in the sight of the Lord, he doesn’t believe it. “How will I know this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” We’ve been prepared for years for this, Zechariah thinks. We’re in the temple everyday, we’re faithful, we’ve prayed and yet our prayers have gone unanswered. How will we know this time will be any different?

I find some solace in this beginning to Advent, this hard place, this small story in which God comes close and carries out God’s very plans amidst our lives. But I struggle to believe, too. You see, I have been pregnant during Advent, filled with the expectation of a child, of hope, of new life, but I have also miscarried in this season. And a few years ago, during Advent, even after having a child, my husband and I were still waiting. Following our daughter’s seizures and hospitalizations, around 10 months they did some blood tests, they sent them away, and we waited for a diagnosis.

And when we got our daughter Lucia’s diagnosis, a progressive, genetic disease of the brain, I remember wanting to be prepared. I googled the symptoms, the treatments, the prognosis. “Death in early childhood” it read. And so I remember wanting to be prepared for when, for how, for what that would look like, so I googled a lot more. We got a diagnosis and now I wanted a prognosis. I remember wanting to be prepared.

But for what? So I could hold back just a little bit, so I could love her…just a little less? What?

Now I would be lying if I told you that as a parent of a child with disability and a scholar of disability that I wasn’t pretty uncomfortable with a text this morning that seems to use muteness, disability, as a punishment for doubt and disbelief.

But my own experience also makes me wonder if there’s more to what God is communicating here. Because I remember that feeling of seeing the beautiful child God had put before me and yet wanting even more reassurance that things would be okay. Maybe that’s where Zechariah was, too, after all that waiting, even with the angel’s proclamation, he just wanted reassurance that things would really be okay. Even the good news wasn’t good enough to overcome all his fears, his plans, his googling. Maybe for Zechariah and for me and for you, we have been tempted to continue doggedly on with our own plans, because at least it gives us some control. When we begin the story, Zechariah and Elizabeth are seemingly in control of their lives and where we end our lesson this morning, perhaps the problem is that Zechariah is still struggling for it. He’d rather cling to control than experience what God has in store.

And so silence that looks like a curse of Zechariah’s unfaithfulness may be the very reminder in this Advent season that God is active in our smalltown lives even when we don’t believe it to be so. That loss and heartache and suffering and pain are the very places where God seeks to meet us, but where we often try to control that God who wants to break into our lives and our world with radical, reckless love. The best thing that God did for me in that Advent season was not to give me a clear prognosis, a healthy child or a new computer where I could google my future to death, but like Zechariah, God invited me to lay beside my plans and just love the person in front of me. God gives us life to go on living, not always in the form of children, but always in the people beside us and the ordinary circumstances of our lives—reoriented, shifted, rerouted toward the extraordinary love of Jesus Christ, our savior.

That son who will be born to Zechariah, John, will go onto urge us to “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” But make no mistake this Advent, we are but participants in the saving work of God, Jesus, and the Spirit. Thank God that our preparations are not our own.

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On community

When I came back from China I was really hurting.

I miss my life there, I would tell people with great drama, but it was how I felt, as though something had been ripped from me, because I’d had friends who knew my heart even though we spoke another language together.  I’d seen strength of character like no other in the foster mothers I’d met, and I wasn’t all that hopeful that I’d find it again in this land of affluence and privilege.

Statues in Paris, France.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
Statues in Paris, France. All photos by Evan Schneider.

But I was drawing these lines around communities the way God never does.

It was easier for me to compartmentalize and think in binaries: China was a place where great struggle and sacrifice produced something real and holy, whereas in the United States, life was hollow and stuffy, less shot through with God’s work, because there was less need, less contrast.

It wasn’t true, of course, but it seemed to make the ups and downs of culture shock more justifiable.  But I was insulating myself from life here by thinking and dreaming about China and logging many hours in Mandarin on skype.  Although I gradually reentered the world of academia and my husband I began to reconnect with friends and find a church community, deep down I still doubted whether these communities would ever compare to what I had in China.

Prayer candles in a cathedral.
Prayer candles in a cathedral.

This past weekend, my husband and I took a great leap and joined a church community that has gently, yet firmly demonstrated God’s faithfulness over the months of culture shock in this land.  What’s so powerful to me is that over those months, I haven’t particularly mentioned my doubts and fears to many people there.  We’ve told people that we spent time in China, but I haven’t asked for their prayers.  I didn’t really know how when sometimes the very prospect of being in community here seemed the last thing I wanted.

But as I’ve listened to the prayers of this community over the last few months, I’ve noticed something.  Before I went to China, I used to lead prayers of the people in my previous congregation, separating the joys from the concerns, but the people at our new church let them bravely comingle.  They don’t seem to worry that the praise of one might smart in the wounds of the suffering, or that great needs might rain on the parade of another’s blessing.  And that’s what life is like, what hope is like, not some naive optimism, but a conviction that suffering exists, and yet, God is very much present.

I realized, I’d been doing it all wrong.  

Not just the prayers of the people, but this theology of parsing the real from the ordinary, the needy from the privileged, and of course, the praise from the pain.  It makes sense to me now that as much as I’d seen and experienced God in China, China itself had become a hollow idol threatening to separate me from the real people in front of me.

Sacre Coeur at night.
Sacre Coeur at night.

This Sunday there was a family in front of us who’d lost a mother and a grandmother and there were painful tears shed as they asked for prayers of comfort and support from the church.  But there were also their arms draped around one another’s shoulders, and deep, heartfelt prayers of praise to a God who they know to be real, powerful, and present because they have each other, their friends, and their church community.

As Evan and I joined the church, nearly every member of this tight-knit family came and congratulated us, personally welcoming us to their community.  How people show that kind of hospitality and peace and love in the midst of loss is the best testimony I have to a God who is real, and who embodies hope and holism and life over death!  It’s that honesty in which people lay their hearts before community, but also the practice of hope and resurrection that’s healed me and freed me even though the people in the pews didn’t particularly understand my struggle or my pain.

Atop a grave marker in a Paris cemetery.
Atop a grave marker in a Paris cemetery.

Thank God they didn’t draw lines around their community.  Thank God there is room at the table.  And thank God for great, audacious hope in the midst of suffering.

Amen.

We are a forward people.

As I read scripture this morning, specifically passages from Exodus, Ruth, and Paul’s epistles, I’m struck by the forward momentum of it all.  While the Bible isn’t often known for being a coherent narrative, here are a people, who though they never fully understood God’s vision, God’s plans, were constantly being told of promise and redemption, Church growth and Holy community, that lay emphatically in the future.

Wa minority church building in the mountains of Yunnan.

And I think about the weight of those promises, the power of that vision, especially in a land like China, where one was traditionally born into a family, a profession, and a role that would not change and shift for much of anything.

But I’m haunted, as I’m sure the Israelites were (I mean, remember the Golden Calf and the whining in the desert?  I’m not the only unfaithful one out there, it seems!) by such commands to leave one place for another unknown, and the very thought that my near future is not here in China, where I’ve made my life over the past two years, but somewhere back in the United States.

Dragon’s neck rice terraces–Guangxi, Ping’an.

And though I’ve found God’s peace in the midst of this time, in the interest of presenting a more real self to my readers and to God, I also have to admit to pangs of guilt and dis-ease as I found myself on the floor of the orphanage in Guilin just a few short weeks ago.

You see, all I’d ever wanted, in many ways, was to find myself sleeping on that orphanage floor.  I’d wanted the orphanage directors and the NGO partners to trust me, accept my research project, and treat me as one of them.  And after nearly two years of hard work, they finally had.

But there was a part of me who felt totally deflated that despite two years of hard work and research, I’d only just reached the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding China and Chinese family life.

Mother and child in Yunnan.

And while I’m so thankful for those last foster visits over the course of that week, I also struggled with feelings of ambivalence–of wanting to be so far from that place, and yet, also wanting to know all the people and the places far more deeply than would ever be possible, and then finally feeling selfish and disgusted with myself even as I slept on the orphanage floor by night and held special needs children by day.

It felt cathartic that evening to cry hot tears over the phone to my husband who understands a bit of the jumbled emotions that mark these kinds of cross-cultural transitions, but also this kind of loss.  I’m so fearful of the coming move, of the unknown feelings to come, that I’ve sort of been transfixed here in China and not very attuned to the present loss of this place, this life, these people, and even this self.

As I struggled a few days ago to get one of my foster families to pronounce the two, short syllables of my English first name (they only know me by my Chinese name), the cavernous distance between the two cultures, the two places made itself known.  There’s been these long looks from friends, even Evan’s trusted sellers at the market–perplexed, even a bit suspicious at how we can leave them.  And my gut cringes, then, and I start hearing a little voice that says, If you really loved China, if you really cared, then you wouldn’t be leaving.

Monastery on West Mountain, Kunming, Yunnan.

But at my most faithful, I realize that God is, too, and that’s not God’s voice.

I keep turning to the scriptures, to Ruth, to Moses, even to Paul, and finding that we are a forward people, that we seem hard-wired for pilgrimages, cross-cultural lives, and for growth.  And there’s some solace in that identity, some solace in being one of those stiff-necked people (Exodus 32 & 33) for whom God will go before into a unknown place, despite my failings and my doubts.

Flowers in the mountains. All photos by Evan Schneider.

So that’s my challenge for the moment: embracing this move as both a loss and a promise, and trusting God more than ever.

What’s yours?