The other week a colleague and I did a presentation for Ph.D. students about the job market. She told them that when she started looking for jobs her own adviser told her that it’s not that difficult to find a job, but to find a job that leads to or amounts to a career takes about four to five years on average in academia.
I could see the desperation and disillusionment in the students’ eyes, but deep inside, I sighed a bit. Her words reminded me that we so often look at others around us and all we see is where they are now, the fruits of their hard work, and we assume things came quickly and easily to them, probably—no–definitively, more quickly and easily than they came for us.
But what if that’s not the truth? What if I reminded you today that good things take time? And that the good things that others have, those took time, too.
See, despite my sigh, I saw myself in the eyes of those students. Here I am not even three months into my new job and I’ve been beating myself up a bit, because I haven’t made it around to all that much of my writing, I don’t have a clear three-year vision for this appointment, and I’m not sure what role I can or should play in institutional change.
But it’s been three months.
And my expectations crammed into those short months, for the next three years, reek of impatience, perhaps even faithlessness. I wouldn’t expect to take a new job in a church and within three months implement dramatic changes. No, I’d recognize and routinize the value in listening, observing, taking in what’s God is and has already been doing before ploughing boldly ahead.
So I’m drawn these days to something like the wisdom of percolation, to recognizing and valuing that if we people work hard for years beneath the shadows, then surely God needs time to work, too. That perhaps we’ve got it all wrong: time is not against us, but for us, in that it takes time to understand, to learn, and to grow, and God wants us to have and to hold and to enjoy that time with God. I would and can afford that time to my students, but it’s a bit more difficult when it comes to me.
But maybe, just maybe, I’m right where I need to be.
As I drove into work the other morning listening to a podcast, a woman on the other end proclaimed that time is in some sense the great equalizer–no matter who you are, from the president of a country to a mother of twelve, you only get 24 hours–you can’t stretch it or exceed it or reform it.
I have realized these past few days (with some help from my spiritual director) that my own expectations have crowded out my good work as I hold a hierarchy of ministry in my mind. As someone who has aspired to be a missionary and who has lived in abandoned bars and alongside drug addicts in Puerto Rico, sought to live in solidarity with migrants in Mexico, and slept on the floor of Chinese orphanages, I’ve always had this unspoken belief that the more uncomfortable you are, the more meaningful the work is that you’re doing.
And that’s honestly worked okay for me, because I have a high tolerance for discomfort. I suppose I consider it one of my spiritual gifts, that instead of being repelled from what’s different, I’m drawn into cross-cultural conversation and challenges and dissonance. But my life is not the hearty picture of discomfort that I once imagined it to be these days. Despite those limited 24 hours, I feel the need to do more, to give, to reach out, and I struggle with the limits I experience and my finitude.
But I’m learning a couple of important things little by little.
I’m learning, for one, that one person’s discomfort looks quite different than another’s. And I’m realizing that the ministry that God has for me may look different than what I imagined for myself. I’m realizing that the wide breath of ministry God has put before me–ministry with my daughter with disabilities, ministry with my students, ministry with my congregants, maybe even ministry through my blog–may have gone unrecognized, especially to me.
You see, I’ve always taken that verse in the Bible very literally about selling all your stuff and following Jesus and felt pretty crappy that I still have stuff. And part of that is really good, I think, because what I find so challenging and compelling about that verse is the reminder that aren’t people that are made for the things of this world.
But what if it’s all ministry?
I always tell my students and my colleagues that I want to imagine a world of abundance, a world in which everyone can succeed and thrive, because I really believe God to be a God of abundance. But ministry…the world as chocked full of ministry, relative only to us, but wholly instituted and appreciated by God?
Well, that thought, that reality, is blowing my mind.
When I realize that I can’t sell all my stuff because my daughter needs feeding tubes to live and standers to make sure her hips don’t come out of socket and a pump to keep her alive overnight and seizure medication, it’s rather black and white and shortsighted and unfaithful to assume that I can’t be faithful to God because of all of that. Those confines fail to reflect the love that God has grown in me for this child with disabilities, the theology that God has granted me to call Lucia good and perfect and really believe it, and the ease that I have and have always felt with people with disabilities.
That must be ministry, too.
As I looked around my life yesterday afternoon–as I walked back from ice cream with the first generation and low-income college students with whom I’ve spent the past seven weeks, and with whom I’d grown so thoroughly–I realized some people might call that classroom one of real discomfort. As I reflected on our little church that is a bit messy and inhabited by very varied abilities and ages and quite a few folks with special needs, I realized that some people might find that kind of worship truly arduous. And as I thought about my writing–writing that works to connect up all these disparate avenues, foster families and China and faith and academia and caring for a child with disabilities–I realized that I’m still one messy, drawn-into discomfort individual, but I simply don’t experience it that way.
I realized that even as I’ve been fighting for a ministry that’s meaningful, God has been equipping me in the one that’s here. I wondered in that moment if the choices I’ve made for my life aren’t so much right or wrong as tied into this purpose that may flaunt my expectations but dig deeply into the gifts God has instilled within me. And I wondered if perhaps the greatest discomfort I’m feeling about the challenge of being here and doing all of this isn’t the very discomfort that God has for me to grow within in this season.
As I walked back and the wind rustled through the trees, I thought I heard a whisper, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
And for the first time in a very long time, I think I started to believe it.
I’ve probably let you know in spurts that sometimes it feels like summer, the presumed magical pause for many of us, has been on overdrive over here. With summer teaching for me, makeup medical appointments for Lucia, and moving for the three of us, it’s easy to see where the time has gone.
I’ve been blogging about this book draft that I’m eager to get out to publishers, and I’ve been a bit critical of myself along the way. You see, I wish I’d had it out to publishers like in June. That was really unrealistic, but you know how when you just want to get something off your plate and out into the world so you can move forward with other tasks and ideas?
But yesterday, with the last class of the semester complete, no meetings on my schedule, and lovely light ahead of me, I had a free morning. And instead of cramming it with burdened and anxious writing, I let my mind wander. A colleague of mine had suggested another scholar who could be an interlocutor for me on the ideas of vulnerability, kinship, and need that are shaping my book. And so I sat there for several hours without an agenda–I read and I wrote, dialoging back and forth with this other scholar about my ideas, without an end in sight.
And it was good.
It was good to be creative, to let go of the aims and simply pursue the thoughts and the ideas and trust that they would matter. I think I eventually ended up with some insights that will help revise the little parts of my introduction that need revision.
But maybe not.
And the strange math of the week is that I still feel that I’ve accumulated something really valuable. It’s the type of wild exploration that I’ve been begging my students to risk doing, despite the confines of their cramped summer semester. “Dare to dream big,” I’ve said. “Go for that big idea, take risks,” I’ve goaded them in their writing.
But I’ve got to live by my own wisdom. I’ve got to carve space out for these creative pauses that excite, entice, and beckon without ulterior motives. It’s the stuff of believing in the creative process, I think, but also believing in yourself. Trusting yourself to manage this precious time that you’ve been given and valuing that good ideas need room to breathe, that a lot of the best stuff seeps out of us when we’re willing to work for it, wait for it, wrestle with it, and knead it a bit.
If I truly believe that, too, then I’ll value and allow myself that morning in a coffee shop to simply think and wander because I’m not the sum of my accomplishments or my successes, but rather an artist whose thoughts and wisdom and goodness need to be lived out daily. While I tell my students stuff like this all the time, I think it’s been a long time coming for me to admit that I’m a bit of an artist when it comes to words and ideas–that I’m a thinker and a dreamer, someone who likes to spin and sew and create with thoughts.
So thank you, dear students. It seems I’ve learned something really valuable from you this semester. It seems I’ve been reignited with the fire and excitement that comes from thinking. It seems I’ve been given the freedom to explore again rather than put everything I do to a purpose, a publication, a deeper success.
And that feels good.
Thanks for giving to me this small, sweet truth. And I’ll do my very best to honor it with a pause every once in awhile and believe in myself just a bit more.
It hit me in the midst of another inglorious diaper change, the consequence of some digestive discomfort following Lucia’s recent surgery, on a late Saturday afternoon on which we, like nearly everyone else on the east coast, were holed up riding out the incessant blizzard. We’d rushed home from the hospital on Friday night, eager to get ahead of the storm and heal together only to find that the new feeds were irritating Lucia’s bowels, she was still achey from her incisions, and on account of the snow, we were stranded without nursing assistance. As I washed my hands and looked rather grumpily into the mirror, I had one of those flickering thoughts laden with resentment, wondering what it was exactly that I’d been doing all weekend.
When I began spending time with foster mothers in China I found that if they didn’t live in farming villages or shacks on the outskirts of the city, they lived in dilapidated six or seven story walkups–big, domineering concrete shells with no elevators. For slight elderly women (the people of Guangxi are extremely small-boned) whose knees had long grown tired from years of hard work and whose backs were already curved, such daily climbs were challenging enough. But when I first watched one of these women sling a foster daughter of about eight who couldn’t walk to her back to take the stairs, I gasped. Observing these women climb six or seven flights of stairs with such enormous burdens strapped to their backs over and over, I admit that I often wondered, what are they doing? Why are they doing this day after day, week after week, year after year?
Like any good Westerner, obsessed with efficiency, ingenuity, and supervising, I also marveled at the ridiculousness of it all. It rather pained me not necessarily that the sacrifice was so grand but so unnecessary, so overwrought, and that it had become so mundane and accepted. Many of the foster mothers had husbands and other children who presumably could have stayed home with their immobile foster children, yet they chose to carry them up and down the stairs.
Years later as I barely sweat to change yet another disposable diaper in my warm home, I’m sure I will never quite comprehend the backbreaking work that those foster mothers did, but I think I know now why they did it, and why they continued to do it.
Because it matters.
In doing that daily work of caring for their children with special needs–climbing, bathing, and feeding–they were doing work that matters. And I think that care mattered not only to the children who wouldn’t have been able to venture outside, have a home, or even a mother without them, but also to the foster mothers themselves. I remember many times catching a glimpse of a seemingly impossible smile upon their faces, a laugh upon their lips, or even a lightness to their steps as they climbed and climbed those stairs. The smiles weren’t always present by any means: caring is hard work, and I don’t want to diminish it as such, but I think the care that foster mothers gave their children mattered, because they did it not to their children, but with them.
I think there’s an emphasis on making the time we have in this life, especially in this country, count. There’s an emphasis on being efficient, responsible, and wise with the way we spend our time. I even hear people talking about doing things because they’re wanting to “make memories” for their children for the future. And I think there’s a lot of good in responsibility, wisdom, and intention, but I gulp a bit when I think how viciously and flippantly I began to judge those matter-ful moments spent together this past weekend. It will always be easy to assume that things can be done better and time certainly is a scarce resource. But I there’s something upended about judging some memories wanting and others foreordained, in dismissing some work as mundane and inefficient, and failing to see what matters most.
What did I do all weekend? I rose when my baby cried, I tried to ease her pain and comfort her, I wiped her bottom and changed her pants too many times to count, I snuggled with her by the fire, I worried about her, and I doubted myself for a moment. But today as I threw her in the stroller to venture out into the white, white snow, I thought of those long treks up and down the stairs in China, and I smiled.
It’s work that matters: it matters to our kids and it matters to me, too.