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.

Why It’s So Hard to Be Where We Are

By Holly

While traveling, I dream of home; at home, I imagine places I would rather be.

Anyone else have this problem?

Being where we are can be our greatest struggle. 

Over the past 3 weeks, I have spent over 40 hours in the air, slept in 4 time zones and wandered through 5 states. I traveled for business, vacation and a memorial service; I went places both alone and with my family. While working in San Antonio, I missed driving my daughters from my house to school. On vacation in Hawaii, I was homesick for my morning cup of tea, home-brewed in my ceramic hand-warmer mug. And somewhere around day 10 of restaurant eating, all I wanted was to cook a simple, healthy meal in my own kitchen. How can it be, that as we live out the extraordinary lives we long for, we crave what is quite ordinary?

When I arrived home in Seattle, a local journalist reported that we have experienced exactly 3 sunny days in the past 5 months. I scroll the forecast on my phone: all I see is rain. I dream of living in a sunny place. We watch the movie Moana; I am filled with a desire to return to Hawaii. When I return to my ordinary things, why isn’t it enough?

I can point my finger at virtues like contentment, gratitude, positivity or presence, and conclude that if I could just be better at one or more of these I would be better at being where I am. It is an answer that holds truth and can be helpful. But it is also incomplete.

We struggle to fully inhabit our earthly experiences because the human heart was created for more. We were made for longing.

In a discussion about why we love fairy tales and legends, Timothy Keller argues:

“…deep in the human heart there are these desires – to experience the supernatural, to escape death, to know love that we can never lose, to not age but live long enough to realize our creative dreams, to fly, to communicate with nonhuman beings, to triumph over evil.”

Deep in our hearts lies an ache for more than what we are living now.

When I miss my cup of tea or what the Hawaiian sun feels like on my face, it is a call to pay attention, not to scold myself for my lack of presence or failure to be content. There is something deeper going on in me. Something that was meant to be. Keller captures it well:

“Our hearts sense that even though the stories themselves aren’t true, the underlying realities behind the stories are somehow true or ought to be.”

What we strive for in presence is freedom from distraction, not desire. It is both what we miss while we are away and what we long for while we are home that make us who we are. Because what we long for represents what we know ought to be true. In other words: eternity.

We cannot be 100% where we are because of who we are: humans with hearts created for eternity.

I First Saw You When…

klimkin / Pixabay

I love my new job. I love my co-workers and I love the clients I get to work with. I love to witness joy in the midst of some of life’s struggles. I love the singing, the smiles, the hugs and the endless words of encouragement they share with one another. I never thought I’d be working with developmentally disabled adults nor senior citizens with dementia and Alzheimers.

But I believe that God knew it all along and I believe He gave me glimpses of this desire all throughout my life. As I reflect on my childhood and adolescent years there is ample evidence that God was grooming my heart for the very vocation I find myself in today. And I am more than humbled and grateful.

 

I First Saw You When…

I first saw you
around age 6.
You stared at me
and I stared back at you
from the noisy booth
at the Korner Kitchen.
Every other bite
of strawberry shortcake
was interrupted by your
different look.

I first saw you
in grade school at Santiam;
you were in a “resource” room
and I was fascinated
that we shared the same first name.

I first saw you
when I heard my grandpa
talk of an “odd” fellow,
a distant adult relative,
who needed to be cared for
by a family elder.

I first saw you
in a group home,
though at the time
I just accompanied my mom
to visit her friend and
her friend’s mother.
You would come down
to eat meals and watch tv.
Sometimes we ate
crunchy molasses cookies.

I first saw you
when you invited me into
your single-wide trailer
as I was collecting dues
for your daily paper
which I delivered.
You were so short, frail
and nearly blind using
a magnifying glass
to read the paper
and your Bible,
which you showed me.

I first saw you
at 14 years old
when your wife
asked me to sit with you
each Thursday night
while she went to play bingo,
just to make sure
you were ok.
You were frail and weak.
We watched Wheel of Fortune
and I did my Geometry.
It was sometimes awkward,
but I’ll never forget you, Oly.

I first saw you
after my conversion to Christ.
I volunteered at a Soup Kitchen
and helped take your plate
to your table
because you had a walker.

I first saw you
when I worked for my father
in his sawmill
and watched him employ,
mentor and encourage you.
You could neither read nor write
and you walked in swaying gait.
We laughed a lot when we
made those wooden pallets.

I first saw you,
when I watched my boyfriend
(now husband)
befriend you in college
and he counted on you as a friend
no matter the developmental differences.

I did not know those firsts
would shape into a now.
A now that feels very
fulfilling
humbling
purposed.