Tag Archives: suffering

Why I’ve learned to see gifts where others see limitations

The tenure track job.

It came up again today in conversation and I heard myself explaining away Lucia as somewhat of a limitation, a barrier to my acceptance of a prestigious position at a faraway university, and the words stung on my lips.  I didn’t like the way they sounded, not because of what they necessarily made Lucia out to be, but as to what they failed to communicate about my life with her. We may not be in China or Europe or even the Midwest anytime soon given that moving, let alone traveling with Lucia is daunting, but I’m starting to see that parameters aren’t always limitations, but often, good and wonderful gifts.

When I focus on the things I can’t or no longer do as Lucia’s mother, I neglect the way in which our tax payment to the state of New Jersey took on new, holy meaning this year, as we’ve become so gracious for the services our daughter receives from the state everyday.  Even the fact that we are seemingly grounded here because of Lucia’s state services misconstrues the amazing provision that we just happened to have a special needs child in one of the states with the greatest benefits for such kids.  Lucia wasn’t accidentally born into such a blessing, but wonderfully, purposefully so.

And then there’s the incredible academic rebirth I’ve had as a result of learning to love Lucia.  Whereas I was already studying foster children with disabilities in China, my experience with Lucia pushed me to develop and teach a new course on “Disability and Difference” at Princeton, to write on my personal experiences, and to begin to combine my scholarly and personal pursuits.  My journey alongside Lucia to reconceptualize diversity, justice, and faith through the lens of disability has been revelatory, and I am so grateful for her guidance.

There’s a really mixed bag here because I often suffer with Lucia, and I also struggle to comfort her, understand her, and help her.  I feel firmly that Lucia’s daily struggles shouldn’t be eclipsed by my own growth or edification.  But several years after God acquainted me with foster families raising children with disabilities in China who made us want to become parents, then God granted us our one-in-a-million Lucia.  I seek to embrace what God has shown me as God teaches me so profoundly that my daughter is fearfully and wonderfully made.

Another thing that I see is God melding these seemingly separate lives–that of the scholar, the pastor, and the parent–in far more intentional ways than I ever could.  In other words, we have partially stayed in New Jersey because of Lucia’s special needs, but I’ve also stumbled upon an opportunity to minister and teach and care for my child here that is life-giving and good.  The gift of living life alongside Lucia has taught me that life is not always as it seems, because there is blessing in what God builds amidst difficulty, sacrifice, and challenges.

In a recent blog post, a friend of mine wrote about how much his son with special needs has taught him not just about life but about the Bible and about God.  The truth is so much of Lucia’s giftedness is in revealing to me my own limitations, in enlightening me in what God is already doing, and in inspiring me to be a better follower, servant, and mother.  Lucia shows me the fullness of life, not in her limitations, but in our mutual, challenging, deep relationship, and I am deeply grateful.  Lucia continues to push me to fulfill my purpose in God and for others.

I might have said then, that Lucia is hardly a limitation–rather she is a gift.

She is a person that has made my life so much more meaningful than it could have been otherwise.  From one vantage point, her life has placed certain constraints on my own, but I believe she has also grounded me to see and experience the gifts and the goodness of God anew.  She has pushed me to reevaluate that tenure track job, not because I can’t have it or she doesn’t want me to have it, but because it doesn’t necessarily represent promise, privilege, or prestige that really matters.  She pushes me to live a life that matters, a life worthy of the calling I have received: she makes me whole in a way I could never have conceived.

And so I say, thank you God, for this good and perfect gift.

Lucia and Daddy
Lucia staring into her Daddy’s eyes during a recent hospital stay.  My photo.

 

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On righteousness, misunderstanding, and weakness

In our church, we do epiphany stars every January.  We select stars with words on them out of a basket and reflect on them over the year, seeking to be open to what God might be teaching us.  Usually there’s some sort of reversal: the meaning of the word originally seems straight forward, obvious, or even kind of narrow, but as the year goes by the star often becomes imbued with a deeper meaning or revelation.

My word for 2014 was righteousness and to be honest, it kind of repulsed me.  When we think of a practical, secular application for righteousness, we’re left with something like self-righteousness, and the theological definition, while presumably positive, brings to mind zealots, judgment, and unattainable holy perfection.

Jersey shore, May 2014.  Photos by Evan Schneider.
Jersey shore, May 2014. Photos by Evan Schneider.

It occurred to me recently that we all spend a lot of time reacting, rather senselessly to one another rather than living with intentions such as kindness, gentleness, and patience.  So much pain and hatred that is spewed is not about us, but very much about the private suffering of others.  The question then becomes, do we choose to spend our time arguing over the validity of that suffering or rather enter into it?

I think Jesus was different because he entered into the suffering of some of society’s seemingly most “deserved”–tax collectors, thieves, and prostitutes, to name a few.  He did not judge their worth by the pain they may have inflicted upon others or the validity of their suffering, but rather, their need for him.  This is a theme I was meditating on a bit a month ago–that it is in our neediness, in our weakness, that we are made holy.

I’m wondering if it is we who misunderstand righteousness to be an elevated, holy ground, whereas it is God who humbles us by making us righteous precisely in our weakness.  I am trying to adopt an intention of kindness, gentleness, and patience in the new year, remaining aware of the illogic of deservedness and the wisdom of grace, the reality of suffering, and the opportunity to be made low and righteous and whole.

Clouds

Amen.

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.