God’s Sweet Spot

By Holly

I love to ask my daughters about their names. Tweener Maya, who currently wishes her name was Morgan, rolls her eyes while seven-year old Sage’s smile spreads under her lit-up eyes. I want to be sure Maya knows how she was named after two beautiful female writers, one a famous poet and the other who would have been had the drunk driver not taken her life in college. And I hope Sage will understand the multiple meanings behind her name – wisdom, its particular shade of green and the ubiquitous plant of my beloved New Mexican desert.

But it is their version of their name stories that I most love to hear, how the stories evolve over time and the details get mixed up, like Sage thinking she was named after an owl and Maya remembering the National Geographic magazine that came out the week after she was born with “MAYA” on the cover. We giggle as one story leads to another and, in the end, I feel satisfied. While they may not get all the details right, they understand the heart behind their names.

While I am convinced that Maya would be different if she were Morgan, it is how she understands and lives from the heart behind her name that matters. There are details, motives and feelings that I want to pass on to my girls about their names, but it is their own versions of the stories I tell them that will shape how they move through this world.

I like to imagine God asking me about the names he’s given me, listening with smiling eyes and open arms, patiently letting my versions of his naming stories evolve into laughter just as I do with my daughters. I picture God asking me to remember why he named me Free, New, or Wonderfully Made. I hear myself stumbling through my answers and leaving out important details.

Then, in the presence of the one who named me, I feel my fears about getting things wrong, and even my shame about not living up to these names, fade away. I understand that God had his reasons for giving us names and, just as my girls will never breathe in the New Mexico desert the same way I do, or feel the way my heart falls into rhythm when I read Maya Angelou, we will never experience our names exactly the way God does.

And this is exactly how it was meant to be.

God didn’t give us names like Cherished, Whole and Forgiven to see if we would get them right. He didn’t call us Washed Clean or Child of God to load us up with expectations and pressure.

God simply wants us to grasp the heart – the love – behind the names he gave us.

He wants to hear our versions of his stories, however crazy and far off from his intentions they may be. Because, more than anything, God wants to meet us in his sweet spot – the place where his story meets ours.

What Prayer Can Be

By Holly 

When I look at this photo, I see my 42-year old life.

A journal for every year but one. Spiral bound, real leather, and everything in between. Beauty passed on to me through hands of dear friends and family. Some years fanned out with order, others piled up, more than a few still trying to find a place. Places. I see those too. The beach with the rising January sun, where I spoke my wedding vows straight from the plain little brown journal whose cover I always intended to decorate. Our first home in a small town in Washington, a humble spot in which some of the most formative stories of my life were written.

When I look at this photo, I see prayers. Writing to God was the only thing that felt right for so many years. In these pages, I asked and thanked. Apologized. Asked and thanked again. These pages are where I promised to do all sorts of things better and parroted scripture in letters to God that said all the faithful, hope-filled things. It was the only way I knew.

When I look at this photo, I feel compassion. For the girl who didn’t know God could hear the hardest things – the most un-Christian thoughts and hopeless feelings. For the twenty-something young woman who thought knowing God was different than knowing herself. For the thirty-one year old trying to fix her broken heart by doing things better.

And I want to tell her how, five months ago, I sat at my kitchen island, looked up at the orange blown glass pendant light and told God I was mad at him. I want her to know that, as I listened to my two daughters singing in the playroom, I slammed my pen down on the counter and, just as my fingers let it go, said – right to God’s face, with a full-on teenage tone – I am Sick. Of. Feeling. Stuck. Done.

Most importantly, I would tell the girl who filled these journals how God did – and didn’t- answer. He didn’t criticize me or leave. I didn’t hear any “should” or “shouldn’ts.” No, God answered with a gift, a project with a purpose. It came in the form of a six-week class to help women learn to trust themselves through meditation and writing. The whole thing flowed out of me in ninety minutes, while Lion King music blared and my girls sang and danced in the adjacent room. I felt as if my self and God were one. Holiness in real time, in the middle of a messy kitchen on a weekday afternoon.

On that day in May, I had no idea what would become of the six-week class. (So far, I’ve taught it in half-day workshop form – an incredible experience!) But on that day, I knew this: God responds to authenticity by coming close. Really close.

When I look at this photo, I understand how where I’ve been has brought me to where I am. I have a sense that growing in faith isn’t about having more trust or less doubt, but pretending less. I want to fill new journals with stories of how God comes close when I give him my broken, ugly parts. Like when I mocked Hosanna the poet’s words, “I am free, free indeed!” and told God I didn’t feel free, or when I told God I felt rejected and, in the most compassionate way, He said “Me too.” Because God gives me gifts, stories, love, guidance, compassion and freedom – yes, even that! – when I give Him the real me.

Trying to Understand Yourself? Read This Book!

By Holly

“It’s her four-ness,” I say to my husband as we analyze our youngest daughter’s latest emotional outburst. As the angry man in the aisle seat raises his voice while criticizing the flight attendant to her face, I think about an eight’s comfort with conflict (and wish I could rescue the poor woman from his wrath…). When I find myself intellectualizing my emotions once again, I consider my five tendencies.

After studying the Enneagram this summer, number typing is giving me new glasses to wear. A personality framework that some scholars believe originated as early as the 4th century, the Enneagram consists of nine types represented diagrammatically by interconnected points on a circle. I have a thing for ancient wisdom made new, which is exactly what happened when modern psychologists and theologians added their insights to the nine-pointed diagram in recent years, so the Enneagram, unlike other personality tests, has held my attention for entire season.

My usual pattern is to take a personality assessment, research the framework, think about my results for a week and then move on with my life, feeling enlightened but unchanged. But the Enneagram’s complexity and fluidity has helped me understand myself more deeply and feel more compassion toward others, even the angry passenger in 17C.

When I start speaking in numbers, my ten year-old daughter rolls her eyes and moans, “Mom, you’re obsessed!” I share my excitement with a book-loving friend and she says she tried the Enneagram and it was too gray and complicated. At the same time, other friends and family members find it as fascinating and relatable as I do and we have enjoyed lively, Aha! moment conversations filled with numbers throughout these sunny months. And so it is with personality tests: there is no One Size Fits All.

Enter Reading People, Anne Bogel’s new book. In the middle of my nine-pointed summer, I learned about this new book and thought it was as serendipitous as me and Type Five. Anne (perhaps better known as Modern Mrs. Darcy), a lover of books and personality tests (and an Enneagram Type Nine, in case you are wondering), covers various personality frameworks including the Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, Strengthsfinder and more in Reading People. She writes:

“I’ve come to think understanding personality is like holding a good map. That map can’t take you anywhere. It doesn’t change your location; you’re still right where you were before. But the map’s purpose isn’t to move you; it’s to show you the lay of the land. It’s the tool that make it possible for you to get where you want to go.”

Anne recognized the problem of TMI when it comes to personality testing, causing Who-Am-I confusion, paralysis and overwhelm, and she set out to make understanding ourselves more accessible and less intimidating. Alongside her thought-provoking explorations of her favorite tests and theories are vulnerable stories about how she has applied typing to her life. From her journey to unbelief in the old parent-child roll of the dice called “goodness of fit” to her reluctant acceptance that she is more a purveyor of possibilities than layer of plans, we experience the how of personality testing, not just the what in Reading People.

Now I am back to my Enneagram “obsession,” and reading people in numbers. I am also recommending Reading People to anyone interested in learning more about themselves, because while the Enneagram isn’t for everyone, but understanding yourself is.

*You can preorder your copy of Reading People by Anne Bogel before September 19 on Amazon or Indiebound (which is super cool!) and get some pretty cool bonuses! Details here.

Who Do You Need to Be Free to Be?

By Holly

collisionone / Pixabay

Excitedly, I check my parking job a few times before squeezing myself out my barely-opened car door and climbing the skinny stairwell up to the ferry deck. Parades of windows showcasing the Puget Sound, a slow buzz of morning voices, and the cozy smell of coffee invite me to settle in for the twenty-five-minute ride to Whidbey Island. This is the life, I think as my eyes drift to jigsaw puzzles lying in waiting on long, skinny tables. I imagine back and forth passengers, piecing them together, ever so slowly. The puzzles represent so much of what my soul craves: a different kind of time, community, being en route to a better place.

Ferries and islands can seem like the answer to my deep longings. But the same thing happens on this trip to an island that always does. My dreams of a life surrounded by water that seemed so perfect, so like me, transform into my reality: After a couple of days on an island, the reliance on a state-run transportation system – and the weather – for so many things feels scary instead of romantic. I start to feel the opposite of free. On the ferry back to the Washington mainland, I pass by abandoned puzzles and find a seat by the window. My island-living conclusion is the same as always: Living that degree of stuck requires a level of surrender I do not currently possess.

I am reminded of my need to be free. As Whidbey Island shrinks into the distance, I think about how personal our definitions of freedom are; I lament that I am not spiritually mature enough to feel free no matter what.

Someday, somehow, perhaps I will live like I believe my freedom is independent from circumstances. Or maybe I will always go back and forth from this conviction like a ferry, and the best I can hope for is longer and longer stays on the island of freedom within me.

On the in-between waters of the Puget Sound, two essential questions surface. First, what do I need to be free from? My answer has more to do with how I think than where I live. Shame, worry, and pain: these are my shackles. Am I likable? Lovable? Will she judge me if she knows my whole story? Reject me? Am I doing enough? What if my kids end up messed up? Because of me?  If I stop and feel my pain, will it ever stop? I think about changing where I live, but live as if I can’t change how I think. If captivity can come down a single fear, it’s this: permanence. It’s being afraid that I will never be liked, loved, accepted, known, or enough.

Freedom’s second question feels more hopeful: Who do I need to be free to be? I know some “right” answers: my “true self” or “who God created me to be.” But what does that look and feel like, when in any given day, I switch from mom to writer to friend to marketer to physical therapist to sister to wife? After a lifetime spent trying, what I know is this: I need to be free to be a woman who surrenders. In my journey to freedom, I shed more than I gather. I find my strength in my weakness. It’s more like a free fall inward than a ride on a boat to a place faraway.

As we dock, I descend in the narrow path to my minivan. Emerging from the belly of the ferry, I begin a new drive home.

The Possibility that Changed My “Spiritual Life”

By Holly

geralt / Pixabay

I first heard the idea in moments that passed years ago but can easily feel like now. It was deep into fall, that time of year when the excitement of pumpkin-flavored everything wears off, maple trees turn from bold vulnerable and thickening clouds hover low and permanent. It was early in the evening, but the automatic headlights of my minivan had turned on hours ago. As I exited the highway, I could barely see the stoplight at the end of the ramp change to green in the blur of constant rain. My windshield wipers swooshed, letting me see just clearly enough to change lanes and make the turn into the Panera parking lot. Walking in to meet a friend, my old black wool pea coat felt like someone else’s – somehow both too roomy and restrictive at the same time – and I wondered if it was time for a new one.

In those moments from the exit ramp to parking lot, Dallas Willard’s words lingered in the way that perfectly crafted sentences demand rereading before moving on. In my three-decade quest for a flourishing spiritual life, I had never considered the possibility he offered:

The Pharisees defined goodness as doing the right thing. Jesus defined it as becoming the kind of person who would naturally do the right thing. – Dallas Willard

I must have played this section of the podcast eight more times on my way home that night. The idea that Jesus is not the only Living Being capable of oozing goodness without effort was, and still is, shocking.

The Pharisee in me feels more natural than the Jesus in me. I feel good about myself when I follow rules, check boxes and do the hard, right thing. A few years in a row, I wrote out a “Life Plan” and listed specific goals for my spiritual life. It felt amazing. Or at least imagining myself accomplishing the goals did. Looking back now, it reminds me of when I was a teenager who had “church” friends and “school” friends: there was a separation that seemed normal – even necessary – then, but disturbs me now.

Until those pre-winter moments when the view out my windshield was just enough to keep going, spirituality was one of many categories in my life. I treated it like work. Or exercise. It was something I did, not who I was. Some days – and many moments – it still is. Living as an integrated spiritual being, instead of a compartmentalized human doing, is an everyday struggle.

Yet I find solace in the memory of that November day, because Dallas Willard’s words opened the possibility that Jesus-like goodness can flow from me as freely and naturally as my self-doubt and fear, that my faith doesn’t have to feel like a measure of self-discipline. Just believing this is possible – for me, for my daughters, for our broken world – can feel like enough.