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.

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.