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.

Learning to Be Human

By Holly

LaughingRaven / Pixabay

I thought we were going to be the next big thing. Our yin and yang combo of poetry and prose would be the refreshing new blog that changed the world. Surely, we – my dreadlocked poet friend and I – would have thousands of followers and write best-selling books. (The Today Show may or may not have been mentioned.)

And:

Who was I to start a blog?  My formal education was the opposite of literature. Journal writing was my training. Who was I to click “Publish” in this world full of experts and gurus who have already said everything important? What business did I have calling myself a writer? Why would anyone be interested in my small words?

I was both Superwoman and subhuman in my approach to becoming a writer. A moment drenched in energetic self-belief was sure to fade into an episode of self-doubt fierce enough to paralyze. It was a vicious volley of more than, less than, more than, less than.

It is only now, three years later, that powerful adjectives like vicious and subhuman seem accurate descriptors of what went on in my head. At the time, each thought seemed, simply, true. In the brief spans when humility and bravery collided to free me to do the work of writing, I thought my fingers were typing out words despite my polarized self-beliefs. I thought more than served as motivation and less than was something to overcome.

This no longer feels true.

More than/less than is a pattern I can trace across my four decades of being. It shows up most clearly in times of transition or uncertainty. Entries into new things – social circles, college, leadership positions, jobs – swing from grandiose plans to hefty doses of self-doubt. Less than takes up more space in my head and thanks to Brene Brown’s well-known work, I have come to know it as shame – the feeling that we are inherently flawed or unworthy.

But what about the more than feelings? If I had to name them, I would call them the ugly fruit of pride. Until recently.

From TED talks and books, I learned that shame was about inferiority and a lack of worthiness. Friends, wise counselors and the media taught me that I was not alone in wondering if I was enough. So, when I first came across these words penned by shame expert John Bradshaw, I was skeptical:

Toxic shame, with its more-than-human, less-than-human polarization, is either inhuman or dehumanizing. The demand for a false self to cover and hide the authentic self necessitates a life dominated by doing and achievement. Everything depends on performance and achievement rather than on being. 

More than and less than human? And more than as shame?  I wasn’t so sure.

Looking back at my writing journey from this point in time, I feel sure of this: Authentic words come in the space between grandiosity and self-doubt, not despite them, like I once believed. For me, writing is not an act of overcoming unhelpful beliefs about myself. I do not spend time convincing myself that I will never be on air with Matt Lauer, nor do I positive self-talk myself into believing my typed words will matter. Where I thrive is in a space of surrender, not battle, and I find that space somewhere between more than and less than. I enter it open, curious, unsure about outcomes and with utter reliance on a power greater than myself. This truth leads me closer to a belief in Bradshaw’s words about shame: if being human is finding, embracing and living as our authentic selves, then anything that prevents us from doing this is not human.

Another certainty: I needed to believe I could do Big Things, that I could change the world with my words, because this was my path to worthiness. Such success would be proof that my humanness was not as flawed as I feared it could be. Ambitious goals can look a lot like dreams – even to ourselves – but a plan born from our own self-worth questions is more than thinking that distracts us from the work we are meant to do.

Shame wears many masks.

These days, I try out my growing belief in Bradshaw’s words with a prayer. It sounds something like this, “God, help me find the space between. Help me stay human.” I pray it in on my way to an uncomfortable social situation, before I speak in a work meeting, as I sit down to write a blog post. God, keep me human. With this prayer, I become more aware of my mind’s tendency toward extremes, I see my shame disguised as pride or dreams. I listen more, and better. With this prayer, I relax into the surrender that is being human.

Feel Like You’re Going Backwards in Life? Try this.

By Holly

LincolnGroup / Pixabay

Everything about my body’s movement felt backwards despite my intention to go forwards. Both hands braced on the machine’s railings, I checked my feet: forwards. This specific ramp/resistance setting on the new elliptical at my gym tricks me every time. Trying to make sense of these feelings, I watched as my feet continued, one in front of the other. Reassured, I looked at the monitor but immediately felt like I was going in reverse again. Only my eyes could tell the difference.

I decreased the ramp by one level; my body and mind synced again. I continued, undistracted.

Whether my legs were going forwards or backwards did not affect my workout goal. After all, exercise on a stationary machine is about activity, not direction.

However, I want to move forward – always, in everything. I need to feel like I am making progress.  Look ahead, grow up, power through and move toward are phrases I utter to myself. But when company sales decline, three weeks of sickness wrecks my to-do list, the needle on the scale moves to the right, and anxiety-driven habits resurface, a backwards feeling comes on fast, one that can’t be fixed by pressing a button.

Whether we are progressing in life or not, chronological time marches on. Humbled by the truth that earth will continue its orbit regardless of my accomplishments and the logic that backwards is not possible, I find comfort in this:

 There must be another way to look at time.

            I step out of the shower – my first after the initial three days of mothering sick children – and I feel as if I reemerge into a life that left me behind. My mind is adrift with thoughts like, “How will I ever catch up?” At the same time, I feel an unexpected certainty that I am exactly where I need to be. I imagine God’s view of time, so different than mine. I wonder if it is like the wacky dreams of my sleep, where I am an ageless version of myself, unsurprised by the convergence of friends and strangers from various periods of my life, roaming through impossible landscapes built by subconscious slices of real experiences. Time doesn’t exist in my dreams; only stories do.

Despite my faithful intentions to use time well, the ticking clock can feel more like pressure than opportunity. Dreams offer another way: they show me that the human brain is capable of experiencing time as something other than linear.

I become less sure of my forward-moving need. I become more sure that our timeless God simply sees me whole.

God did not intend for us to wrestle down time in constant pursuit of progress. Nor are we created to disregard our numbered days. There is a middle way:  we can choose to step back, to breathe in a big picture view of time, to take it in like a dream, to imagine how God sees it. We will see that our stories are made where long, barren stretches meet transfigured moments. We will be reminded that God is not linear.

Backwards is not possible.

Giving: Is It All About the Sacrifice?

By Holly

joduma / Pixabay

joduma / Pixabay

I can picture her sitting at the head of the dining room table; it’s midnight and she’s just getting started. Photos are strewn across the brown leather table protector; sticky album pages wait for their fill of memories, their place in the finished gift.

It is 1992, before scrapbooking is a thing. There are no 12”x12” decorative pages or digital layout tools. My mom’s project will take months, countless late-night hours. I am fourteen, old enough to understand how much our youth pastor, Kevin, who is moving from the Midwest to Las Vegas, will appreciate my mom’s efforts, and young enough to absorb a definition of giving.

The scrapbook project is mammoth, covering more than a decade of memories from hundreds of people with no help from the internet. Just an old-school photo album, kitchen shears, Scotch tape and an ambitious woman’s self-sacrifice.

Sacrifice. It’s the cornerstone of giving, right? We hear it from the pulpit on Sunday mornings and TV ads comparing monthly latte budgets with the cost of school for a little girl in South Africa. We feel it when a friend shows up and lets her millions of other things wait and when those who have the least gather the most tags from the Angel Tree. We see it at midnight through teenage eyes.

And, all the while, the story of the ultimate cruciform-shaped sacrifice pulses through our veins like a dare to choose a selfish, guilty life or a sacrificial, giving one.

We do our best to choose the latter.

Then one day, somewhere between fourteen and forty, sacrificing and giving become one and the same. Spiritual synonyms. Sacrigiving. We find our ourselves trying to feel the cheerful heart that God loves as we search for the right ways to give – the ones that come with words like inconvenient, uncomfortable and risky. The stuff that will move us from our cozy, protected, latte-filled lives into the unpredictable, risky, faithful world of sacrificial giving.

We spend a lot of time wondering if we are sacrificial enough, and may find ourselves creating sacrificial scenarios to cancel out our selfishness, and hyperfocusing on giving because it’s what God called us to do.

But there’s this thing about giving that God says over and over again, this thing that gets lost in sacrigiving: Obedience is better than sacrifice.

Even thousands of years ago when sacrifice was worship and the goats were slaughtered in the name of faith. Even then. Even in 2016 when we have too much, spend too much and eat too much. Even now.

God wants our obedience more than our sacrifice. And so it seems that God only wants our sacrigiving if it is out of obedience.

I saw my mom sacrifice; I didn’t know it was obedience.

Even now, I don’t like the word, “obedient.” It feels parental, submissive, even robotic. Maybe that’s why it’s easier to go for the sacrifice. Or maybe it’s just that sacrifices are tangible, seen and praised.

But it helps me to learn that the Hebrew term for obedience, shema, means “to listen.” And the Hebrew language does not separate hearing from responding. I like to think that this means we can’t listen to God without changing.

Shema first. Change me first.

As I enter this season of giving this is my prayer: Shema.

Shema first. And the giving will come.

Giving: Is it All About the Sacrifice?

By Holly

joduma / Pixabay

I can picture her sitting at the head of the dining room table; it’s midnight and she’s just getting started.  Photos are strewn across the brown leather table protector; sticky album pages wait for their fill of memories, their place in the finished gift.

It is 1992, before scrapbooking is a thing.  There are no 12”x12” decorative pages or digital layout tools.  My mom’s project will take months, countless late-night hours.  I am fourteen, old enough to understand how much our youth pastor, Kevin, who is moving from the Midwest to Las Vegas, will appreciate my mom’s efforts, and young enough to absorb a definition of giving.

geralt / Pixabay

The scrapbook project is mammoth, covering more than a decade of memories from hundreds of people with no help from the internet.  Just an old-school photo album, kitchen shears, Scotch tape and an ambitious woman’s self-sacrifice.

Sacrifice.  It’s the cornerstone of giving, right?  We hear it from the pulpit on Sunday mornings and TV ads comparing monthly latte budgets with the cost of school for a little girl in South Africa.  We feel it when a friend shows up and lets her millions of other things wait and when those who have the least gather the most tags from the Angel Tree.  We see it at midnight through teenage eyes.

And, all the while, the story of the ultimate cruciform-shaped sacrifice pulses through our veins like a dare to choose a selfish, guilty life or a sacrificial, giving one.

We do our best to choose the latter.

Then one day, somewhere between fourteen and forty, sacrificing and giving become one and the same.  Spiritual synonyms.  Sacrigiving.  We find our ourselves trying to feel the cheerful heart that God loves as we search for the right ways to give – the ones that come with words like inconvenient, uncomfortable and risky.  The stuff that will move us from our cozy, protected, latte-filled lives into the unpredictable, risky, faithful world of sacrificial giving.

We spend a lot of time wondering if we are sacrificial enough, and may find ourselves creating sacrificial scenarios to cancel out our selfishness, and hyperfocusing on giving because it’s what God called us to do.

But there’s this thing about giving that God says over and over again, this thing that gets lost in sacrigivingObedience is better than sacrifice.

Even thousands of years ago when sacrifice was worship and the goats were slaughtered in the name of faith.  Even then.  Even in 2016 when we have too much, spend too much and eat too much.   Even now.

God wants our obedience more than our sacrifice.  And so it seems that God only wants our sacrigiving if it is out of obedience.

I saw my mom sacrifice; I didn’t know it was obedience. 

 Even now, I don’t like the word, “obedient.” It feels parental, submissive, even robotic.  Maybe that’s why it’s easier to go for the sacrifice.  Or maybe it’s just that sacrifices are tangible, seen and praised.

But it helps me to learn that the Hebrew term for obedience, shema, means “to listen.”  And the Hebrew language does not separate hearing from responding.  I like to think that this means we can’t listen to God without changing.

Shema first. Change me first.

As I enter this season of giving this is my prayer:  Shema.

Shema first.  And the giving will come.