We’ve examined all the evidence, talked to multiple doctors, and made the decision for Lucia to have a minor, preventive procedure next week. But given that nearly every one of Lucia’s surgeries, despite its long-term success, has resulted in substantial consequences and complications, no decision ever seems so minor, no surgery decision ever completely or clearly obvious or secure.
When I was a kid, I used to think that being adult meant that when you made decisions you made them because you knew what to do–because you could distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad in the way one prunes the dead branches from an otherwise life-filled tree or discards bruised and rotting fruit.
But I think I find this so hard because I’m an 8 (on the enneagram). I make decisions swiftly, like it’s my job. In fact, it’s a job people often, with great, hearty, thankful sighs, outsource to me. I’m proud of my forthright and decisive nature, because it contributes to my vision. I can often see very clearly the path forward when others are still hemming and hawing over the myriad of options.
But I do not enjoy one bit playing God with my daughter’s comfort, life, future, and pain.
I really wish there was someone to outsource all of that to.
But then I’d be someone else’s parent and she’d be someone else’s child. And she’s my conviction, all twenty-three pounds of her is what motivates every excruciating decision and prayer and hope and risk.
Because when it comes down to it, complacency and inaction and passivity are all luxuries as well. As Mary Oliver so starkly put it, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
At my bravest and perhaps most decisive, I realize that Lucia is already living this life, and we are merely striving to find the conviction to live it just as fully with her. So we strive to outsource the burden of those decisions to God so the weight of them, whatever they may be and whatever may come, feels just a bit lighter. We decide to live each day with conviction, because perhaps it’s not so scarce after all or just reserved for big decisions. Perhaps conviction lies in embracing the everyday moments that compel us to see just how blessed we are to live this life with Lucia and one another.
As 2015 has begun, I’ve been filled with this desire to be faithful to God. But what does that mean?
As I’ve reflected on all the uncertainty in my own life and the world, I continue to struggle with trusting God with the future and what is beyond my knowing. When I picture the future, my wildest dreams still sometimes tend toward anxiety, and I begin to worry, doubt, fear, and breed resentment. I know these are not faithful feelings, and I worry that I’m just not cut out for this life of faith.
But I’ve also realized something. When my daughter cries, I turn without thinking to wrap her in my arms. When a student in front of me needs counsel, I listen intently and reply with carefully chosen words. When those around me are hurting or in need, I lift them up in prayer, and I strive to serve them.
When it comes to one moment, I think I can be faithful. I can be faithful with this moment rather than fearful of what I do not know. And suddenly faithfulness becomes not something unattainable or fleeting, but a daily practice of breathing and walking with the God of this moment.
A couple days ago I found myself saying to a tearful student in my office, “I know at this moment, you have no idea what decision you will make in the future and how you will make it. But you are a capable person. You are doing everything you can to gather all the information and be prepared to make a good decision. Therefore, I trust and believe that you will make a good one when the time comes.”
I love saying those words.
I love letting others know that when the world and uncertainty fill them with doubt and fear, there is reason to trust otherwise. I love believing in a God who is invested so deeply in our lives, in making us capable, faithful people, rather than leaving us to our own devices. And I love knowing that faithfulness isn’t just about some lofty goal or distant future, but is the stuff of now, of taking care of this moment, with God never far away.
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).
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 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.
“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?
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.
I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. –Philippians 4:10-13
For a variety of reasons, my morning runs on the canal path have been a bit slower as of late.
That’s not like me.
My type of running is usually a 3-4 mile sprint in which I push myself to the ultimate limit for thirty minutes, cramming in a brisk workout in an equally jam-packed day. I’ve never been good at pacing myself out there on the trail, and when I’m out of shape and trying to get back to the grind, I have to remind myself over and over not to push, lest I get injured or expend the limited energy that I have.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing for us to push ourselves in life, but jogging this new rhythm, I’ve started noticing things I never saw at the breakneck pace– a hornet’s nest precariously dangling from a slight branch, a plush feather falling to the path, birds, turtles, snakes, and the ever-so-slight glimpses of fall in the reddening of the trees’ leaves.
I’ve started learning something like contentment in all circumstances.
Things are far from perfect, and yet God seems to be opening my eyes to the wisdom and gift of a slower pace, the grace that peeks out when we’re willing to take it in, and the goodness that is God beneath the ups and downs of this world. Underneath contentment lies acceptance, and under acceptance, a deep, firm layer of mutual trust between God and me that seems to know no end. It’s like firmament or insulation from this rough and tumble world, this world that pushes, that runs along at breakneck pace…
But I’m discovering that we don’t have to.
We are meant to notice, we are meant to praise. We are meant to live in God’s grace and lift up God’s glorious name in all circumstances. Paul writes above that he has learned “the secret…of having plenty and of being in need,” and that secret is confidence, faith, and trust in God. And I think when it’s at it’s best, it’s mutual. As I trust God more with my life, with everything in it, I feel God trusting me to minister to others, to follow my call, and to speak words of wisdom in times of trial.
I’m discovering the depth of what it means to be content, to remain steadfast in our hope and faith in God, despite the wavers of this world. And I’m discovering the overflowing gratitude that comes from it (I think it no coincidence that the verses previous to the ones from Paul in Philippians 4 are the ones that call us to rejoice and to focus on the true, the honorable, the pure, the just, the pleasing, that which is worthy of excellence and praise [Phil. 4:4-8]).
God is so good.
Contentment is not a trite command to push ourselves to be positive in times of sorrow, but an invitation to notice the grace in this fallen world, and to take heart and trust that God is with us in all circumstances.
My husband and I celebrated our fifth anniversary of marriage in Paris this May.
I usually let him lay low as far as this blog is concerned. He’s the kind of guy who has plenty of opinions, but is also content to let me play the public internet persona…though his tidbits of wisdom still sneak in from time to time.
I wanted to write about marriage from a personal point of view, though, not because my husband and I are above the vulnerabilities of any other couple (and believe me it’s scary out there), but because especially when we’re feeling vulnerable I think it’s important to share our joys with one another, too. I wanted to share what we’ve learned in a short period of time, which is enough to tell any newlyweds that it gets better, much better than you could imagine.
Many moons ago, we weren’t really the types who saw ourselves getting married, and I remember wondering even as I said the words, “I do,” how anyone in their right mind could promise forever and eternity, especially someone like me who had only lived twenty-six years up until that point.
But I’ve come to believe that marriage is a lot like faith–we promise impossible things, not because we’re capable of them, but because we believe that through practicing faith, we grow to be faithful. We believe that our faithfulness, our devotion, and our love mean more to marriage than our abilities, our faults, or our failures. I believe that a healthy marriage, like a healthy faith, relies on grace, mercy, and love.
I haven’t always had that kind of faith.
The first few years we were married, things were kind of rough, and our relationship teetered because of imbalances in careers, contentment, and expectations. We weren’t very graceful with one another most of the time. We were just trying to hold things together so they wouldn’t fall apart.
Over the years, we’ve learned that it’s not so much about holding things together, as practicing trust, compassion, and understanding. It’s a bit of a slight of hand–when things feel like pushing a boulder uphill, it’s usually the pushing that’s not helping. But when things look effortless, there’s a lot of building, trusting, and caring that’s going on behind the scenes.
A few years ago I remember sitting in a classroom in China, where my Chinese teacher outlined marriage patterns in their culture. She drew a little chart where she demonstrated that men with Ph.Ds marry women with masters degrees, men with masters marry women with bachelors, and men with bachelors marry women with a high school education. She pointed out that my position as a female doctor would be very lonely in their society, where men are still threatened by women’s academic success and earning power.
As I walked home that day, threading the e-bikes and seas of people, I realized how much I had taken my husband’s undying support for my academic goals for granted. He’s never once begrudged me my success or my dreams, in fact, he’s always there right behind me, supporting and encouraging me (it’s not like the man is an underachiever, though, I mean the man has two masters). The point is, when I wasn’t looking my husband was investing in not just me, but our marriage, silently and without fanfare, but in one of the most meaningful ways.
I’ve found someone with whom I share a passion for travel, for service, and for justice. And I’ve grown as I’ve let this person shape me, too, with his love for China, his passion for learning, and his commitment to community. My goal these days is to outdo my husband in my respect for him and in trusting his love for me, to rejoice with him as he excels in his new job, and to challenge him to achieve his goals as well.
Lately I’ve been so filled with gratitude that I enjoy spending time with this guy just as much, if not more than we were first met. It’s a thrilling thing to be–and I know this is cheesy–falling in love with your husband more and more everyday. But it’s also a sobering thing to choose that love and commitment day after day especially at the moments when it would be easier to say something prideful, spiteful, or just walk away.
I guess that’s how one promises forever, one day at a time, until ten, twenty, thirty years have passed before you know it.
For now, I’m satisfied with five. I feel like we’re finally hitting our stride, and I’m in for the long haul.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So that’s my challenge for the moment: embracing this move as both a loss and a promise, and trusting God more than ever.
When we first arrived in China, many of my posts took the form of earnest prayers that God provide security to us in this unknown place. I struggled to trust God’s faithfulness when our apartment flooded, when the visa process loomed large and complicated, or when my dissertation research just seemed too impossible to complete.
And I’m thankful for a community of supportive readers who hear me out when I fear and when I complain, and the process of writing through these feelings and the fears has been immensely important and meaningful to me.
But it’s nothing compared to what many in the world face everyday.
When I listened to This American Life‘s radio show on Americans in China, when I visit with my foster families who are struggling to make ends meet, and when I remember that despite China’s growing wealth, half of the population lives on a dollar a day, I am reminded that we in America, for the most part, are on the side of the rich and powerful. Even I, as a graduate student, am rich by most Chinese standards.
I recently met with one of my Chinese friends who is struggling with these dichotomies. “I notice a lot of missionaries come here and live very comfortable lives, all the while speaking loudly of their sacrifices, in order to keep a steady stream of support from abroad for their kids to go to good schools and so the parents don’t have to work,” she observed. “But meanwhile it’s the Chinese people who are working in the trenches, making the real sacrifices, spending their own money and time, on top of their bills and their full-time jobs, and much judgment from their foreign partners who chide them for worrying about money and not spending enough time with their families.”
This whole partnership and solidarity thing is tricky.
And rather than a drastic move across the world or an elaborate ministry to the poor, I think any effort at solidarity or partnership with others first requires us to admit how powerfully our own wealth distracts us from the Gospel and hampers our ministry, and based on this realization, agree to play a minor, humble part that is based on listening, rather than a major one in doing God’s work.
Rohr goes onto specify the types of questions we need to ask if we are to be free of ourselves, namely, “In what sense are we ourselves rich? What do we have to defend? What principles do we have to prove? What keeps us from being poor and open? The issue isn’t primarily material goods, but our spiritual and intellectual goods–my ego, my reputation, my self-image, my need to be right, my need to be successful, my need to have everything under control, my need to be loved.” (Rohr 168)
It seems we’re quite incapable of welcoming Christ because we’re so stuffed full of ourselves. The real thing we have to let go of is our self. We aren’t really free until we’re free from ourselves.
But that’s the beauty of this challenge to be vulnerable with one another, to craft a life built on the promise of abundance, sacred things, and mutuality. As Rohr writes, “But Jesus doesn’t offer us any certainties; he offers us a journey of faith. Jesus doesn’t give us many answers; he tells us what the right questions are, what questions the human soul has to wrestle with to onto Christ and the truth.
Our formulations determine what we’re really looking for. Our questions determine what we ultimately find and discover. Answers acquire power too quickly; they often turn our words into ammunition to be used against others. And answers make trust unnecessary, they make listening dispensable, they make relations with others superfluous. Having my answers, I don’t need you in order to take my journey. I need only my head, my certainties, and my conclusions. It’s all private. But Jesus said we have to live in this world so as to be dependent on one another. The real meaning of a poor life is a life of radical dependency, so I can’t arrange my life in such a way that I don’t need you. We can’t do it alone.
–Rohr Simplicity p. 162
And isn’t that the bare bones of solidarity and partnership–that we can’t do it alone? That dependence on others requires us to rearrange our lives around one another, however inconvenient, humbling, and excruciating that process may be?
I have a confession– I don’t think I’m there yet.
But I desire to grow in Christ, and I pray that I am growing, not just with every year spent here in China, or every realization of the Gospel as seen through the eyes of my brothers and sisters here or in America, but in the quietness of my heart, where I admit that my wealth and my power have led me astray, where I find the willingness to ask questions and really listen, rather than rely on my own answers, and where I discover that I am my own worst enemy, that my needs for recognition, power, and control pale in comparison to the a life of dependence on Jesus and my neighbors.
And perhaps most importantly, I’m realizing that it’s not so much about me and my rising above all this, but about the faults and the wounds that I carry, in which others may recognize their own humanity, and we might begin to tear down these walls that divide us.