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.

How To Know What You Really Want (And Trust It)

By Holly

milivanily / Pixabay

We’re three French braids in to the Friday morning rush when she says it. Braiding my nine-year-old daughter’s hair started in the downstairs bathroom. Do’s, redo’s, teary eyes and a tight-fisted, straight armed stomp up the stairs followed. In her upstairs bathroom, we stand, defeated, in front of the mirror when she lets it out: “I don’t want to want perfect.”

The current and third braid isn’t perfect. I am no pro stylist, but as a mother of two girls who love to dance and act, I have a few skills when it comes to buns, braids and twists. In the School of Little Girl Locks, I consider the French braid entry-level. I have an inkling that her six words are about more than an imperfect hairdo.

In the mirror, she sees a girl defeated by perfectionism. I stand behind her – a head taller, a little further away- and I see the familiar female struggle: a skeptical, tumultuous relationship with desire.

I untwist the braid and scoop dark blonde waves into her signature high ponytail. As a faint smile emerges and her hair swings free, she says someone recently told her that her hair was frizzy. Now she strives for a tamed, smooth frame around her face, not a single escaping strand. But striving is not the same as wanting. What she really wants – even though she doesn’t know it – is something different: the freedom to be herself.

Wanting is complicated. Sneaky little shoulds insert themselves in front of our desires and act as if they have been there all along. Their mere presence changes everything. Is it, I want my hair to be perfectly smooth, or I should want my hair to be perfectly smooth? Do I want this career move? Or should I want it? Is this the kind of mom I want to be? Or is there a should or two in there? Both feel mostly true, so does it even matter if I want it vs. believing I should want it?

Yes.

Because here’s the thing about those sneaky shoulds: with them comes compromise.

A favorite artist-dreamer of mine, Elle Luna, puts it this way:
“Should is how other people want us to live our lives.  When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves.  The journey to Should can be smooth, the rewards can seem clear, and the options are often plentiful.”

Wait. Clear rewards and plenty of options. That doesn’t sound like compromise. See how tricky this is?

Should can seem okay because it defends desire, in a tangible, explainable, Yes! That makes so much sense! way. If we dare to invite shoulds to the conversation, they are happy to join in and do what they do best: make a case for what we want. They tell us all the things a French braid will do for us – take away the frizz, free us from the worry about what someone else will think, and look better too. They present menus full of good options: one braid or two, regular or reverse, back or side.

In other words, shoulds take the straight and narrow path to “look over here.” They say nothing bad, untrue or hard to believe. They simply distract. They are so skilled at explaining that they don’t need to convince. In fact, they reassure.

And they make us compromise.

Because the thing shoulds don’t get is that our true desires are pure. They don’t need to be explained, analyzed or defended. They just are. If we don’t trust our desires for what they are and, instead, give in to trying to figure out why they are, we mutate them into plans of action that make a lot of sense but lead us away from ourselves.

When we start down the road of justifying what we want, the compromise begins. By coming up with reasons for our wanting, we change the wanting itself. And our path starts to turn, ever-so-slightly, until we find ourselves in front of the mirror, confused and defeated.

Let me give you a personal example. Ever since my love of reading began (which, sadly, was not until age twenty, thanks to high school required reading like Last of the Mohicans and Watership Down), I have collected passages from books that I love. That alone may sound somewhat normal for a writer, but when I tell you that I am not exactly picky about how many words I save from each book and that my library card number is one of three sets of digits I have memorized (along with my social security and credit card numbers), it may cause you to wonder. (Thank God for those colorful Post-It tabs and the Evernote!) Add to that the pre-laptop hours spent copying paragraphs into spiral bound notebooks and the detail that this habit of collecting words started nearly two decades before I even considered becoming a writer, and I start to wonder. What made me go to such great lengths to save other people’s words? I rarely, if ever, went back and looked at them. Why did I keep doing it?

My best answer: unquestioned desire.

If, over those twenty years, I had tried to explain why I spent my time this way or, worse, why I wanted to, I fear I would have stopped. Even now, looking back, I can’t come up with a why besides the clichéd “I did it because I couldn’t not do it.” From this seat, I can easily see the benefits to a writer that come from taking on the role of scribe for half of your life, but I can’t explain why I did what I did then.

I’m just glad I did.

At forty-two, this is what I know about pure, soul-born desire:  it doesn’t need or want justification. It just is. Acting on its behalf may seem weird or pointless, but trusting it leads us closer to our true selves.

So, tune into the things you can’t or don’t want to explain. And don’t.

But do them anyways.

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.

What Happens When We Actually Listen?

By Holly

sbroady / Pixabay

When others repeatedly tell you that you are good at something throughout your life, strange things can happen. Of course, the door to the ego opens wide and it can go to your head.  More likely, the praise ends up buried in a mental compartment labeled something like “already good at – just like everyone else – so I don’t need to work on it.

We normalize our strengths and work on our weaknesses while the reverse would be much more helpful. This is what I did with listening.  Friends, family, teachers and coworkers told me I was good at it; therefore, becoming a better listener never made my list of self-improvement goals.

It was an unlikely event that changed this – dinner with friends at one of my favorite Asian restaurants on a rainy Saturday night. It was the kind of evening that you look forward to for weeks because you will be with some of your favorite people sharing wonderful food and adult conversation while the kids stay home.

As we slid into the ornately carved wood booth, my mood shifted to unusually light and happy. My typical reserved nature was overshadowed by an impatient desire to be the one talking. There were things I wanted to say, and, with conversation flowing steadily among four couples, it was hard to get a word in. Laughter, stories and a scrumptious family-style meal filled the table, time passed quickly, and goodbye hugs were exchanged with satisfied, mutual fullness.

On the way home, a familiar restlessness swept through my mind. I replayed the evening, wondering why I had been so focused on what I wanted to say. I recalled a specific moment – holding my drink in the air as shapeless words floated around it – when I appeared to be listening to a story but I was really listening for a space to tell one of my own.

And that was when it hit me:  We can listen for or listen to. I am pretty good at listening for things, and not just for my turn to talk. In a single day, I catch myself listening for what I expect my daughter to say when I ask her why her clothes carpet her bedroom floor, confirmation of the stories I make up about myself, criticism from a colleague, bickering sisters, grumpy cashiers and judgmental moms.

In The Listening Life, author Adam McHugh puts it this way: “In listening for, we are listening like a prosecuting attorney, trying to uncover a hidden motivation, catch the person in a contradiction or find something to confirm our suspicions. We are setting the trap, posed to say “aha!” at any second.”

It’s not hard to find what we listen for.  But what will we find if we listen to?

A couple of years have passed since that lovely dinner that changed my relationship with listening. Through trying and failing and trying again, I am paying attention to how I listen and learning what happens when I listen to:

Someone I find hard to love says something hard to hear. In my head, I roll my eyes, I criticize. Something stills me just enough to listen more, to listen to. Buried beneath his rough words hides a precious dream. My judging heart turns soft.

Listen to, it connects who you are to who you want to be.

     A group of friends is set to gather at my house.  A few people cancel.  I wonder why they’re not showing up; stories of being not-good-enough speed through my mind.  I pick up my phone again to glance at a text and read the words on the screen , instead of the ones inside my head.

 Listen to what IS, instead of for what may or may not be. 

     I show up at the gym with a goal in mind: calories to burn. I am determined. Halfway through the elliptical, the right side of my body screams, “stop.” With one foot on the machine, I pause. My number of calories seems more important than my pain, so I go on. Two days of fatigue and irritability follow.

Listen to your body.  It has something to say.

     I hear birds sing a winter morning into light. Later, a fog horn calls to life beyond land. Still later, the hum of my empty home’s furnace preparing for my family’s return.

Listen to your places, they speak the language of your heart.

     I interrupt my husband – again. I wonder what he was going to say as my mouth keeps moving. I’ve run over his words with some of my own; a faint, familiar emptiness sets in: a moment lost.

Listen, for fullness.

     Something triggers pain from the past. Suddenly, today is yesterday. I am who I used to be.  But, when I listen to what is happening now – words spoken from loved ones who are trying and changing, fresh silences born out of healing, sounds of this year’s rains tapping taller, stronger lodgepole pines – it brings me back into presence.

Listen to now.

What will you listen to?

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.