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.

Two Things I Thought Would Never Happen

By Holly

I call them dream-prayers. They are the deep desires of our hearts that are completely out of our control and so implausible that the only thing to do about them is pray. I’m about to tell you about two of mine, but first, a bit more about why they are both dream and prayer, not either/or. We tend to use the word dream for our biggest, most important goals in life. The right combination of discipline, persistence, Passion Planners, mentors and luck could make many of our dreams happen. In other words, God is a helpful add-on, but not necessary.

Not so with dream-prayers.

Dream-prayers don’t have steps, maps or logic. Their path is surrender, not pursuit. Surrender as in letting go of control, yes, but also to the truth of whatever the desire is within us. We must accept that our deepest, most impossible desires are a permanent part of us. They won’t disappear because we are sure they could never happen and they won’t back down when we try to convince ourselves they aren’t that important. Dream-prayers are born out of wanting, not needing, and being honest with God about what we want, instead of what we think we should want, does not come naturally. This is why they aren’t 100% prayer.

Before I tell you how my two dream-prayers unfolded, you need to know their backstories. The first one: When I met my husband in graduate school, I was a closet Christian who practiced faith with my journal and the occasional opening of a pink paperback Women’s Bible. He fell into the SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) category after growing up in a non-practicing Jewish-Catholic home. As a teenager, he attended a few church youth group events with a friend and decided religion was not for him.

And the second: College, graduate school, marriage and work took me further and further away from my family in Ohio until I eventually found myself with a job, two kids and a house in Seattle. Living a 5-hour plane ride away from my family was not what I ever hoped for or intended. Two unsuccessful attempts to move back to the Midwest pushed our roots deeper into the  Northwest, thousands of miles away from my parents and two sisters.

Over the years, my desire to practice my faith grew, as did the challenge of doing it alone. As I got to know God better, I wanted my husband to know God too. But he remained a spectator of my religion. Closed doors on cross-country moves did not subdue my desire to live close to family. One sister moved to Washington D.C., another remarried and was in Ohio to stay.

Circumstances made what I wanted seem impossible. But my perspective changed when I read these words in Bruce Wilkinson’s little book, Prayer of Jabez:

“we are expected to attempt something large enough that failure is guaranteed…unless God steps in.”

This was my cue to create something new out of my heart’s desires: dream-prayers. I started praying big, specific prayers about my husband getting baptized someday. And I prayed that one day, I would live close to someone in my family.

Here comes the part where I tell you how, from this point on, I prayed incessantly and never stopped believing these two things would happen and then they did. Only this isn’t how it went.

Hope in what seems utterly impossible is a “thing with feathers” but, for me, instead of singing, hope flies. It’s a winged thing prone to wandering, and my desire, not my belief, brings it home. I did stop believing in my dream-prayers, but I never stopped wanting.

Unsplash / Pixabay

So, I prayed. A lot. But not incessantly. When you write the same dream-prayer words in one journal after another, year after year, it gets old. Things don’t change, and you give up. Then, like hope, you keep coming home to desire. You find yourself back in the familiar territory of surrender, praying the same prayers, writing the same words.

Before I go on, there are two things you need to know:  First, both of my dream-prayers involved other people. I’m not sure this is a dream-prayer prerequisite, but it is one way to be certain that the outcome is not within your control. What we can and can’t control gets fuzzy fast when it comes to goals, dreams and prayers. Second, no one knew about my dream-prayers – what they were or how I prayed. Looking back, I’m not sure what to make of this. I know my true desire was for my husband to come to faith naturally – for himself, not for me – so I kept that one to myself on purpose. I’m not sure why I never told anyone about the other one, but there is something in me that feels privately protective of my dream-prayers, like they are between me and God, and that’s it. This is me, and it may not be you: there’s no one right way when it comes to sharing dream-prayers.

Back to what happened: As it turns out, prayer doesn’t depend on our belief. And dreams don’t die when we take breaks from them. In 2013, my husband was baptized. In 2016, my younger sister and her family moved from Washington D.C. to Washington state. As if that weren’t enough…three weeks ago, they moved into their new home less than 1 mile from ours.

To witness God working silently, separately, on hearts living in the same home, to watch 2,761 miles between you and your sister shrink to a 10-minute walk is to understand, without a doubt, why dream-prayers don’t have maps.

Here is the part where I tell you how I hope knowing how my dream-prayers came true will make you never give up on yours because anything is possible and your dream-prayers can come true too. But this is not what I hope you will take from my story.

What I want most for you is to have a dream-prayer. You don’t have to believe it is possible to pray for it. Praying anyways is part of the dream-prayer surrender. All you need to do is trust the desires of your heart that won’t go away, the ones that keep popping up in your life and are so big they could never happen without God. This is how you will know it’s a dream-prayer. It is real, it matters, God put it in you, so be true to it. Pray anyways. The rest will work itself out.

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.

Does God Always Have the Answer?

By Holly

Yakir / Pixabay

Pulp, Extra Pulp, Less Pulp or Pulp-free? Calcium, Vitamins, Iron Added? Not from Concentrate or do I care? Scanning the six-foot wide refrigerated section of my neighborhood grocery store, I am reminded of just how many choices we have here in the First World.

Experts say the average adult makes at least 35,000 conscious choices each day. I believe it. From groceries to alarm clocks to parenting to callings, our days are built on decisions. Habits, self-images, morality, religious views, circumstances, time and emotions draft the shape of our decision-making blueprints as we carry on with our days, weeks and years.

Maybe you are a decisive person who is unfazed by a statistic like 35,000. Or perhaps you consider yourself “indecisive” and relate to this number with a feeling of overwhelm. Wherever you fall on the decisive continuum, you can be sure that one day, somewhere between 1 and 35,000, you will be forced to stop in your tracks and stare down our decision-making process because you simply don’t know what to do.

Even though one could easily argue that the only certain thing in life is the present moment, many of us struggle with uncertainty. In my life, not knowing brings out the worst in me: sleepwalk-like trips to the pantry for handfuls of chocolate chips, Google idolizing, whining, victimizing, anxiety, control…all of the opposites of faith and mindfulness.

But (sometimes fortunately and sometimes not) God gave us free will. And not knowing is part of free will. So what do we do when we’re faced with decisions that have far weightier consequences than pulp or no pulp, and we have no idea what to do?

My answer: Try to get clarity. Lame, I know. But, as a person of faith, I lean toward believing that God will give me clarity. And, until recently, I believed that if I made the right moves and waited it out, God would pretty much always give me an answer.

For some time now, I have intentionally chosen “a” instead of “the” (as I wrote about here) and “and” instead of “or.” It is one thing to write and talk about a principle, and quite another to live it out.

So, earlier this year when I struggled with a big decision with long-term consequences and, up to the very last tick on the decision deadline, had no clarity, I had no choice but to wrestle with this question: Does God always have the answer?

I had done all the faithful stuff: prayed the prayers, asked the questions, read the verses, sought the counsel, carved out the space. I had even applied my tried and true Andy Stanley-inspired series of questions that I reserve for such times of indecision. But God did not give me answers.

God was not silent or distant. I felt divine presence as I struggled with what to do. But I wanted more than presence; I wanted clarity. I began to wonder if I was missing something – perhaps I wasn’t paying attention when God sent me a sign or wasn’t still enough to hear that small, distinct voice.

Eventually, the new part of me that likes to emerge from the corners of my seeking soul and challenge my boxed-in views of God raised her hand halfway and timidly asked, “What if God doesn’t have the answer?”

My response: What if God doesn’t have the answer? What would that mean?

That, in this situation, God is more concerned with being close to me than telling me what to do? That God will love me and take care of me no matter what choice I make? That there can be more than one good decision? That, sometimes, God wants me to choose?

Yes.

With God’s love comes freedom, and with freedom comes choice. Too many times, we hear the word, “choice,” and our dualistic thinking barges in and draws its signature line to separate good/bad, right/wrong, or wise/foolish. Rather than question the presence of the line itself, we aim for the right side of it. With the best intentions, we set out to make a decision that will do all the things – honor God, fulfill God’s will, serve the people we love – to keep us on His side of the line.

But God is not a line-drawer.

And free will is more beautiful and complex than God’s test of our ability to choose right or wrong. It’s born from a love so big that “right” doesn’t have only one way, our process can be just as important as what we choose, and, sometimes, God leaves things up to us.