Tag Archives: Yunnan

Advent and Breaking In

My husband and I attended an Advent service on Sunday evening: candles were lit, we sang “This is Christ the King,” and there were repeated prayers that God, hope, and power would break into our lives this season.

Stones for the foundation of a church in Yunnan, China.
Stones for the foundation of a church in Yunnan, China.

For some reason these words, these prayers for “breaking in” caught my ear.  As I’ve ruminated over them the past few days, I’ve come to see that there’s inherent violence to the language, the request, and the action: we’re asking for God to shatter our present reality and its comforts and even our sense of justice.

In reality, being broken into is a terrifying experience: I recently retold a story to family and friends about a time I awoke at four am in a strange hotel room in Yunnan, China to see a hand reaching out of the curtain towards me!  And brokenness, the type our God suffers on a cross all because we could not receive him as King, is the shattering of bones, spirit, and blood.

So why do we pray for brokenness?

I think while we ask for our worlds to be turned upside down, we’re often a lot more like Herod in the Biblical story than the shepherds who make their way to the manger.  We don’t like to think that when threatened we’d come up with some power-hungry, violent plan to preserve ourselves, but the flesh in me questions just how open, how cognizant, or how hospitable we might really be to a new order, a new truth, a baby King.  

Something tells me we’d be more likely to go kicking and screaming to the manger, if at all.

Sometimes I went kicking and screaming to the people I came to know in China.  I resented that my time had to resolve around them, I got hungry and tired walking from house to house, from field to field, and I dreaded those hours of buses and trains with little sleep or comfort.  I tried to put up walls that would preserve my sense of control, my time, and my culture.  Because to me, the Chinese life felt incredibly inconvenient and uncomfortable at times, and I didn’t want to let my sense of culture, right and wrong, or justice be disrupted by their messy worlds.

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But in breaking is a lot like living in China, I think.  

It’s the opposite of convenient, because it’s revelation where God doesn’t ask us to give way–God simply shoves us and all our convictions aside.  I saw a meme this week that said, “the world needs a stable influence,” but as long as we think of the stable as stabilizing, quaint, or even hygenic, we lose sight of the meagerness of the manger, the upheaval of nations and kings wrought by it, or the savior that made his way into the world only to be rejected, broken, and burdened by our sin.

It’s not that this season isn’t about joy and hope and power–the Christ story is ultimately a story of redemption from sin and evil when all seemed to be lost.  But given what God has done, I’m not so sure we need to pray that God breaks in.  Instead, I wonder if our prayer shouldn’t be that God make us willing and able to recognize and receive revelation, inconvenient as it may be, or seemingly out of place in a season we’ve chosen to decorate with candles and Christmas.

Bringing the water buffalo home for the day in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Bringing the water buffalo home for the day in Yunnan, China. Photos by Evan Schneider.

 

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China…in pictures.

I’ve been cleaning off my hard drive, and these images of people and places in China just ring truer than any words at the moment.

So, without further ado, allow me a brief look down memory lane…

Meeting Christians in Lijiang, Yunnan, that first November 2010 with Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship.
Children playing in Guangxi, Yulin.
Constructing homes in Lincang prefecture, Yunnan province.
On the road in Yunnan.
House boats on the Yong River in Guangxi, Nanning. Photo by Evan Schneider.
Young girls play in the Li River in Guangxi, Yangshuo.
With friends in Nanning. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Two years in China

Nanning at twilight!
Another image of city life in China.

It’s been two years of life for my husband and I here in China.  We’ve traveled to the mountains of Yunnan to visit minority churches, explored the ultra modern city of Hong Kong, explored, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Egypt, and the UAE and hosted our families and friends. He’s completed two years of teaching college-level English and I’ve finished two years of fieldwork with foster families.

On Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam.
In Tahrir Square, Cairo, on the one-year anniversary of their revolution with our friends Ben and Emily.
With a foster baby in Guangxi. Photos by Evan Schneider.

More than anything, as I look back through the past years, I’m astounded not only by the breadth of these experiences that I will carry with me, but also God’s provision and faithfulness.  

If you have time I invite you to check out the following posts which weave their way, highlighting some snapshots of our two years here, describing some of the highs and lows of research, faith, cross-cultural immersion, and our life.

From 2010

August 2010: Abide in me…  {thoughts on silent prayer in a city of 7 million, spiritual growth, and freeing oneself from distractions}

September 2010: Journeywoman  {on security, brokenness, and culture}

December 2010: Equipped by the Spirit (Yunnan Reflection #2)  {reflections on my first trip to Yunnan, and the tension between the need for theological training and the equipping work of the Holy Spirit in the Yunnan countryside}

From 2011

May 2011: Hunan Headlines: A Mix of Sorrow and Hope  {personal and professional reflections on the baby-selling scandal in a county in Hunan, which made international news}

July 2011: Church Renewal from Below  {thoughts on Richard Rohr, cross-cultural exchange, and Chinese solutions to Chinese problems}

August 2011: A Taste of Vietnam {evangelizing for one of my favorites, Vietnamese coffee!}

October 2011: Come on ride the train {snippets from a typical road trip to Guilin}

November 2011: Like a child  {reflections on fieldwork with children, disability, and faith}

December 2011: The Best Things about Winter in China {bundled up babies, chestnuts roasting, and hot pot, of course!}

From 2012

January 2012: Cairo notes: from the rooftops {a reflection on our first few days in another land}

February 2012: Thanking God for the woes  {on the beattitudes, justice, and God’s call}

March 2012: 72 Hours in Hong Kong {highlights from a weekend trip}

April 2012: Some Easter Thoughts from China {on Christianity, tomb sweeping, and culture}

May 2012: Consider the ravens, consider the blessings {on understanding, cross-cultural relationships, worries, and of course, blessings}

July 2012: Pinching myself {reflections on leaving China and savoring the little things}

 

 

 

 

 

On bones and forgiveness

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?  But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.  –Psalm 130:3-4

You can focus on what we call the necessity of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or the sinfulness that puts us all in need of saving, or any manner of sins.  Or you can focus on that which makes our God so fully God, and that is, forgiveness.

The bones that make us the stuff of this earth, fully human, are the same ones that ache with insecurity and fear and lead us to point bony fingers at one another.  There’s no grace in those bones.

But if you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?  And so our bones crumble, not only under the weight of such iniquities, of sin, but of their very lifetimes, which are finite and limited.

But may we be reminded before we return to dust, may we choose always to focus on the fact that with you, Lord, there is forgiveness, so that you may be revered.  

It’s when I happen upon a scripture such as this that I’m not so worried about the eventual eroding and decaying of those brittle bones one day, but with every day that might go by in this lifetime when I could have embraced and preached your forgiveness but did not.  Every day that those bony pointing fingers might have held a hand in theirs instead of doing their wagging, or those legs may have stood in solidarity with other sinners, rather than walking away.

With you, Lord, there is forgiveness.

And may there also be with me, may there be grace in these bones, as with my brothers and sisters on the earth.  Amen.

A village elder in Yunnan province.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

Neediness

I’ve all but reached the grand finale in the book of Luke.  I know the events leading up to Jesus’s final hours, how he taught in the temple, and slept on the Mount of Olives, all too well, and yet things are remarkably not as the seem (21:34-38).

Wa church members worshiping in Yunnan.

The wonderful thing about scripture is that our own context always alters its meaning, lifting certain moments out of obscurity.

That…and the Holy Spirit, of course.

And so this morning as I find myself lamenting the divisions of my Church in America, as well as the fledging churches in China, I am humbled to see how Jesus surrounded himself with (unlikely) broken beings.  I think of Peter in his denial, Judas in his betrayal, and what rings true is not the prowess of Jesus’s twelve, but rather their inability to understand, their fears, their selfishness-in short, their humanity.

Rural church in the mountains of Yunnan.

The other morning as my friend and I reflected on the passage about the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (Luke 8), she remarked wisely that Jesus responds to people with authentic need.  How true that is, I think, for all throughout scripture we see people who in humbling themselves before Jesus, their hearts have already been cured in that they’ve found their way to humility, servanthood, and faith.  Therefore, they are freed of their burdens, cured of their disease, and fully healed.

Meanwhile we who feel we have bigger fish to fry, we who, like the disciples, no sooner have we received Jesus’ sweet communion do we start to quibble about who among us is greatest (Luke 22:14-30) and who shall be saved, we mistakenly see ourselves as without need.  Jesus famously says in the fifth chapter of Luke that those who are well have no need of healing, and that he’s come to call not the righteous but the sinners to repentance (5:31).

Surely Jesus was being sarcastic about those healthy, righteous people, right?  Oh, what I wouldn’t give to hear the tone of some of these one-liners!

Context, my friends.  And thank God for the Holy Spirit.

Mandarin Bible with Dai translation notes.

As I read about that Holy meal this morning in modern China, that famous last supper, what strikes me today is not only the communion Jesus offers to all of us so greatly in need, but how that last meal is tainted with the foreshadowing of betrayal.  We will all succumb to the lie in life that we’re healthy, shiny got-it-all-together disciples, and only when that lie comes apart at the seams do we find ourselves crawling back to Jesus.

So today I’m praying that God would make me ever aware of my own fragility, that I’ll stick to a life of groveling, crawling, and humbling myself–in short, the life where I belong.  And that the humanity of others would only make me see myself more clearly, more accurately, and that would only make me cling, in my neediness to Jesus.

Sounds like another job for the Holy Spirit!

Inside a Wa church in Yunnan province. All photos by Evan Schneider.

On wealth and solidarity

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.

Lahu children in the mountains of Yunnan province.

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.

Chinese men in a church in Yunnan province.

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.

You see, as Richard Rohr writes, we who hold the wealth, the prestige, and the power, have been in the driver’s seat for far too long.  “And in this world, there is still a whole mass of other people who have other insights.  The white man first raises questions of power and control.  The questions we pose to the Gospel are always questions that come out of this bias.” (Rohr Simplicity 163)

A young female minister in the church in Yunnan.

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.

—Rohr Simplicity p. 168

It’s a process–we can’t look the three demons in the eye: the need to be successful, the need to be righteous or religious, and the need to have power and get everything under control (174), until we recognize that material wealth has its limits and has taken its toll on our ability to know God and others.  And it is that toll, that ego, those demons, that hamper our ministry and our ability to know and understand others.

There are no easy answers here.

The author with a foster child.

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.  

Me and a Wa woman in Yunnan, 2011.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

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.

On Simplicity

Flashback photos from our January trip to Egypt. My husband photographing me by the Red Sea. Photo by Ben Robinson.

I’ve been savoring Richard Rohr‘s Simplicity, lingering over the pages for nearly two years (you’ll notice my nightstand rarely changes).

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my lack of speed when it comes to free reading, but Rohr’s is a book that has been so meaningful to me that I’ve read it repeatedly and with frequency, often returning to chapters after months away, yet feeling as though they’ve gained new meaning with the passing of time.

I had never even heard of Rohr before I came to China.  

I picked the book up at a closing sale in Colorado, a couple days before we left the country.  And in this new one, I rediscovered the contemplative life and the radicalness of Jesus’ life.

Greeting minority Christians in Yunnan, Nov. 2011. Photo by Leslie Santee.

Rohr writes passionately on the importance of women’s leadership in the Church today, on the great wisdom to be found in great humility, and on the simplicity of letting go.  A couple days ago I sat with an intelligent Chinese friend of mine, a woman with great gifts for ministry and leadership in the Church.  She mentioned a fascination with Catholic spiritual formation, and I immediately brought up Rohr’s name.

And then it occurred to me that after two years of reveling in this wisdom, it was nigh time to pass it on.  I’d leave this little paperback with my friend, hoping it would encourage her to share her gifts, hoping that as Rohr believes and has led me to do so as well, that out of contemplation comes action.

Inside a mosque in Cairo. Photo by Ben Robinson.

And so I’ve been tearing through these last few chapters with newfound vigor and appreciation for Rohr’s teachings.  Rohr writes,

I think this is the clear meaning of the story in chapter 25 of Matthew: the people were suddenly to discover Christ in the least of their brothers and sisters, and not just in other charismatics, not just with other evangelicals.  Otherwise, all you have is collective self-love.  Then the group is, so to speak, just an extension of my own ego.  This is evident in the need to use the same Christian jargon as I do, so that we can be together.  But this isn’t the freedom of the children of God.  Such people will never unite or reconcile anything, because their life at the bottom keeps getting smaller and smaller.  Real Christians are able to discover and love Christ in the not-me, the totally other–but this always means taking a step beyond previous boundaries…

I chose the story of the rich young man to demonstrate the change we seek has to be very concrete, very immediate, and very practical.  Otherwise it’s an intellectual thing.  Jesus asks the rich young man to move from here to there–and he meant economically.  For most of us this means turning to people who are different from us.  This the only thing that can liberate us from our egocentric attitude.  Maybe this means that as younger men and women we go to the elderly, or maybe as healthy persons we go to the physically and mentally handicapped, or if we’re homophobic we work in an AIDS hospital…

I believe that circumstances change us, not sermons.  We’ve changed when we’ve moved to a new place and when we expose ourselves to the truth of a different standpoint, one that’s not our own.  What else is metanoia, or conversion, supposed to mean in the New Testament?  It means to go to a different place; and this practical step will see to it that our growth as Christians is something real, something earthbound.  Otherwise there is always the danger that our so-called love of Christ will be just a disguised love of self.

–Richard Rohr, Simplicity, p. 154-155

With parents in Yunnan province. Photo by Leslie Santee.

Although I’ve been a Christian for decades, this transformation of living in a different place, seeing the world through different eyes, and being faced with a new reality, has taught me more about God than many of those years combined.  And as Rohr suggests, it’s the freedom of letting go of what I thought I knew, and seeing Christ in the least of these, and in those who were formerly strangers, that has made all the difference.

A taste of Vietnam

Ben, Emily, and I sipping on Vietnamese coffee in the loft of Cong Caphe, Hanoi.

There are some travel locales that just linger in your mind, and for me, Hanoi, despite its rough-around-the-edges-24-hour-hawker-identity is one of those places.  

And the taste that lingers with me is that of the Cong Caphe I brought back in humble brown bag sacks.

I mentioned in an earlier post that the first taste of Vietnamese coffee was a revelation, the bitter strength of the brew cut by the sticky, sweet and condensed milk.

There are many places that claim to do Vietnamese coffee in China, but hardly do it justice (in fact this was something that made me outright suspicious of every coffee shop we saw with umbrellas emblazoned with the Trung Ngyuen label, the same one that has let me down so famously here in Nanning).

And so, the next best thing to a return trip to Vietnam (which we hope to do next year for our anniversary), is a cup of home-brewed Cong Caphe, with sweet milk out of Chinese cardboard cartons and some sugar.

This morning’s breakfast: wheat bread with butter and honey my husband brought from a beehive in Yunnan, a fried egg, and you guessed it, a cup of Cong Caphe.

A lovely way to start the morning, if not a mite short of a revelation.

Photo Taken by Evan Schneider, Courtesy of Ben Robinson.

Equipped by the Spirit (Yunnan Reflection #2)

Hmong minority women take in a Thanksgiving service

In a conversation with my mother about the recent trip I took to Yunnan with PFF, she reminded me of an important theological paradox, “Does God call the equipped or does God equip those whom God calls?”  The topic of our conversation was a humbling moment during the trip when I got to translate the faith story of the Provincial Leader of the Yunnan Christian Council and TSPM (Three-Self Protestant Movement [or government-sanctioned] Church).

This man, who currently supervises the religious life of the entire province has only a high-school education, and reluctantly came to the capital over ten years ago at the urging of others in his tiny village who could see the call God had on his life.

With tears in his eyes, he spoke of how ill-equipped he felt for the ministry to which he was called: before coming to the capital, he spoke no Mandarin, only his local minority language, and had only recently become a Christian and become involved as an elder in his poor, local church. But when he heard the story of some foreign missionaries who came to Hong Kong without any language skills or few resources, and were subsequently used by God to strengthen the church there, he knew he had to be obedient to God’s call no matter his own fears or the risks.

Today, as a minority himself and a born leader, his vision for the growth of the minority church in Yunnan consists of a heavy emphasis on theological training at all levels (county, provincial, and national), from local programs for village elders who will never have the opportunity to leave their villages, to scholarships for college students who are the first from their villages to study at university.

As we traveled throughout the countryside, we saw these various levels of training schools and scholarship support in progress, and it was a challenge for we Americans, to whom much education and theological training has been given, to encourage both education and the work of the Holy Spirit in these local congregations.

While we recognized the validity of their desire to be trained, we also tried to stress the lesson that their provincial leader embodies, which is that God truly equips those whom he calls. Being in the presence of this great leader and pastor humbled me, for all the theological education in the world cannot substitute for the willingness of a person to submit to the work of the Spirit and the call God has on his or her life.