Tag Archives: presence

Breath by breath, bird by bird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’” –Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I remember the first time I walked out of the air-conditioned airport in Puerto Rico, and as the dense, humid air filled my lungs I began to panic that I couldn’t breathe.

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Arecibo, Puerto RIco. My photo.

That’s kind of how I felt the other day when other graduate students and faculty started to infiltrate the premises of my previously quiet and calm office space and chatter away about how crazy things were about to get with the students arriving in the next few weeks.  The other night after I put my baby to bed I found that despite my body’s exhaustion, I couldn’t sleep because my mind was racing.  When I find my stomach in knots, I wonder if the stress will ever dissipate, whether I’ll ever be able to take joy in my work without a pang of guilt, or whether concentration will ever return.

I’ve been lucky enough to evade this kind of stress for most of my life, and I think that’s why I’ve come to think of it as somewhat of a weakness.  I’ve come to think that it’s my fault when I succumb to that stress, when I feel it, and when I panic.  I think a lot of us find ourselves thinking that the presence of stress indicates God’s absence or God’s displeasure with our sinful lives.

But as I took some deep breaths the other evening and the air patiently filled my lungs, I discovered that God desires to sit right beside us in the stress.  I remember this moment when I was a little kid and my grandma, who was a little gruff and aloof and kind of scared us as kids, plopped right down beside us and played with our fisher price little people in the living room.

And I think that when we release ourselves from the fear, responsibility, and guilt that often comes along with stress, we find God sitting in it, right beside us.  I think that ugly, insignificant, stress-filled lives are also beautiful and holy, because God is present even in the thick smog of stress enabling us to breathe.

Breath by breath, bird by bird, isn’t that how anything ever gets done anyway?

“Bird by bird, Erin,” God says.  “I’m sitting beside you.  I’m already there.  I’m present and I’m able.  So are you.”

Amen.

Fall is coming to Princeton.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Fall is coming to Princeton. Photo by Evan Schneider.
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What God does

When there is violence and hunger and fear and suffering on the news and in our lives, it is easy and natural to question where God is and what God might be doing.  Many things in this world keep us in suspense, and God’s wisdom and mercy are often counted among them.  I continue to find my relationship with God challenging, stretching, and arduous.

But a few weeks ago as I sat in church and heard brothers and sisters lifting their voices around me in song and found it beautiful, moving, and humbling, it occurred to me that in our eagerness to fully understand, we often miss out on the everyday work that God does and is doing.

Scenes from the neighborhood.  A field of wildflowers.  My photo.
Scenes from the neighborhood. A woodsy meadow and a field of wildflowers. 

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Those ordinary voices were broken and imperfect, but God made them melodious and harmonic.  Similarly, the people in my life are scarred and wounded, but God uses them everyday to minister to me.  Nothing about being a parent is easy, but God grants me grace for the journey.

In fact, every morning we wake up with breath in our lungs, beats in our hearts, and thoughts in our heads are gifts from God, but we don’t always attribute those everyday, powerful miracles to our God.  I heard a song on the radio the other day that reminded me that God is already awaiting us to arrive at that future we’re so worried about.  It reminded me that we serve and worship a God whose very being–past, present, and future–is far beyond the confines of our thoughts and prayers.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking to calculate, plan, and understand.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with mourning the problems in this world, and seeking to effect change.  But I wonder if when we put our minds so feverishly to change what’s in front of us that we often falter because we fail to see what God is already doing and what God has already done.  We forget that life itself, with God, is the point of living.  We don’t get to embrace what God is already doing in our lives and learn from that wisdom, grace, and beauty.

So this morning if you can, alongside prayers for a fallen and broken world, give thanks for breath and for humanity, for beauty and for hands and feet, and for God’s presence in the everyday.  May we all feel it a bit stronger these days.

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.

Armfuls of grace and mashed potatoes

I feel like I’ve entered a phase where I’ve been forced to live here a bit more, to let others care for me, and receive the grace and abundance of this community.

The gates of Princeton University. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And while sometimes I feel sad and confused that China and her people are feeling more distant to me day by day, at my wisest, with God’s presence near, I realize it’s not an either/or.  God doesn’t want me to or ask me to choose between people in China and people here, but to believe that God’s omnipotence leads to impossible community and connection.

Not last night’s presentation but another one from this season.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But it’s not just God, it’s God’s people who do that kind of work–the people in my life who generously let me babble about the foster mothers I’ve met until I’m breathless, the people who sat through my presentation last night and inspired and encouraged me with their enthusiasm for my study of families in China, and the people who value and understand that work is not just work to me, but the stuff of vocation, passion, and calling.

Photo by Kayla Nymeyer, Yunnan province.

And so as we enter this season of giving thanks season, and China feels further and further away, I count the blessings so near and pray for God to come closer.  Not just closer to me and mine, but to God’s people in China and people everywhere, because that’s God’s thing–doing the impossible globe-trotting ministry of presence.  

More beauty in Yunnan.

And the rest–the believing and the boldness and the taking in big armfuls of grace just as we do extra helpings of mashed potatoes and turkey–well, that’s all up to us.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

On the Princeton campus, glimpses of green.

I didn’t write about it, but last week my world, and it’s positively because I’m still betwixt somewhere between China and this country, came crashing down.

And I wept, and worried, and wondered what solace I could find in this place and these people who seem so far removed from anything of the experience I had in China, from the people who sometimes only seem to live on in my heart, but who I know from the wonders of technology continue to suffer, create, and go on in a way I never could in a life so much more valiant than my own.

And I struggled with what it means to love and minister without presence, what it means to leave people behind, how much these feelings are about me and my need to assess and feel my own impact in this world, and where God’s call is in this moment.

I shouldn’t write struggled, past tense, because I’m still struggling.

Fall leaves on the Princeton Seminary campus.

But I’ve been encouraged by your comments, your grace with me during this time, your encouragement that reverse culture shock is a messy, nonlinear process, and that narratives of struggle, like my own, can be meaningful to others, despite our disparate paths.

I guess that’s where I’m led this morning–to see that Jesus’ healing is the opposite of judgement, that we don’t grow by covering up our faults and our failings, but rather by bearing our scars to one another and finding that miraculously, by grace, in our imperfections, we find ourselves whole.

The choke holds I assert on myself when I find my own needs bubbling up in the midst of my fears and my prayers for my friends in China just don’t get me any closer to that wholeness.  And the older I get, I find the people I most admire in this life are not the ones who have these linear narratives of autonomy, success, and brilliance, but those who resolve to live in the space where mistakes are always imminent, where brokenness is the real human condition, and triumph is wholly and unabashedly attributed to God’s goodness rather than individual expertise.

So I’m feeling pretty good about being broken this morning, like both my dear friends in China and my understanding friends in this country.  The more I see how deeply we all need God’s restorative grace, the less alone I feel, and the more I can’t help but think we’re all inexplicably bound together in this wonderful, holy pursuit of our God in this life.

New York skyline at dusk.

And that, my friends, feels pretty much like the opposite of crashing.

So, thank you for catching me, once again.

How to not speak of God

Allen Ginsberg – view from my kitchen window, 1984

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks, from the great plains of Oklahoma, buying a car, insurance, and learning (or should I say not really learning) how to use our smart phones.  And then packing up that car and driving it some 1500 miles cross-country, in the good-old great American road trip fashion.

I’m very much a creature of habit.  

I love routine, because it keeps me balanced and aware.  Writing this blog has added to that discipline of seeking to be aware of God in every moment, so I’d like to attribute my lack of connection with God as of late toour transience and our busy-ness.

But I can’t.

To do so would be not only dishonest, but also misleading.  The fact is, God is everywhere and in everything (after all I managed to adjust to my unpredictable fieldwork and life in China), and even if there truly are more distractions here in America, it is I who choose to be distracted by them.

In the moments where I’ve been present with God, God’s presence has also been palpable.

Like at my dear friends’ wedding this past weekend, where I had the honor of praying for the the bride before she walked down the aisle and praying the blessing at the reception.  And so many friends and strangers, from so many walks of spirituality, came up to me confirming God’s presence in those moments.

Or the funny little discipline my husband and I found in reading Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother aloud to one another on our road trip, and pausing to discuss Chinese culture, life, and relationships.  Or regarding God’s breadth and goodness as I hear my professor’s husband confirm that God must have heard our prayers for his cancer from China, because his progress has been steady, his condition remarkably stable.

But there have also been too many moments where I’ve referred aloud to God’s provision as luck, when I’ve tucked my faith and my vulnerability out of earshot, not wanting to burden anyone with the fact that I’m not sure how well I’m doing with being back in the US, or admit that I’ve spent less time talking to God as of late, and I’m wondering what to say or how to pray.

So I’m confessing here that I’m all too often an expert at how not to speak of God rather than how to, and that doing so, even for a budding minister, is difficult, risky, important, and takes practice.  

And while I’m feeling disappointingly aware of the moments where I should have spoken up, and the moments where I’ve failed, I’m also feeling confident in God’s presence, despite my absence.  And this evening I’m trusting in God’s ability to keep growing me toward God and others this day, tomorrow, and in the future…wherever that may be.

Abide in me…

I sat in silence last night for the first time in far too long.

My practice of Centering Prayer has been so gratifying in China, especially in a bustling city teetering on 7 million or so, I crave silent time with God, and yet, I am so distracted by the day’s tasks, and I make excuses to avoid meeting God just when I need God most. This evening the meditation I read was on Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha and this business of being distracted, or rather, choosing to be distracted.

Centering Prayer itself is an exercise in releasing ourselves from the things that distract us everyday (for me, it is often the thought that I need to start my work immediately in the morning, so therefore, I don’t have time to pray; or, it might be the thought that my Chinese is inadequate, and therefore so am I and all the plans God has for me here; or, simply, the thought that is more pressing than the words coming out of my husband’s mouth), and repeating a prayer word to remind us of God’s presence and our intention to dwell within that presence as our mind inevitably wanders (as mine just did in the above parenthetical!).

For years my prayer word has been grasp, and the word has held great meaning and a powerful reminder for me that just as I am grasping for God, God is always, ever intently grasping after me. Since I arrived in China, though, I have felt compelled to discover a new prayer word, which is no small task, given that I have literally lived and breathed the previous one for over six years.

However, the word, abide, has gently, but firmly marked my silent prayers here in China. And tonight as I was imagining myself at the feet of Jesus, looking into his eyes and straining to hear what he has to say to me, alongside Mary and Martha, I stumbled upon two things.

One is the sense in which distraction is really a choice, and not a force to which we are passively and powerfully subjected.

Martha feels trapped by the tasks which she finds a great distraction from Jesus, but I think Jesus himself implies that distraction is a choice, when he says of her sister, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” I recently read an article in which a brilliant professor who is busy with multi-million dollar grants and projects had the revelation through spending about a week in nature away from computers, text messages, and the like, that he could, indeed, stand to become a better listener.

And I hear God saying to me that I can choose to be distracted and let my life pass me by, or I can choose the best thing, the only thing, which is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. I can choose to listen to others, and I can choose to be fully committed and fully attuned to things that really matter.

The second revelation was to do with this prayer word abide.

It occurred to me this evening that there is nothing modern about the word abide, because it harbors no sense of time, contemporaneity, or measurement, but a sense of longevity, eternity, and perpetuity. The phrase I often repeat as I pray and process the distractions in silence is, “abide in me, as I abide in you,” (John 15:4), and tonight as I repeated it, it was as if I was hearing it for the first time.

I realized in my spirit that abiding is the opposite of distraction: abiding is the experience of dwelling with one another, of being content, of listening and relishing silent presence. I was sitting with my knees propped under my chin as I began to pray, and for the first time that day I noticed the tightness in my shoulders, but as I repeated my prayer word, dwelling, abiding at Jesus’ feet, far away from the distractions, the kitchen where I had previously been alongside Martha, clamoring away, I not only felt the tightness dissipate, but I felt almost as if there was a hand upon my back supporting me, and I allowed myself to lean back into it, resting, abiding, and relishing God’s presence.

Thankfully, this choice to abide, to choose against the distractions of this world, and to choose ‘the better part, the only thing’ comes also with God’s promise to support us, to hold us up as we go on living, and that can ‘never be taken away from us.’