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.

A Birthday Month in Books (for #ReadUpstream)

By Holly

In May, I turned 42, an age I strongly prefer to 40. I’m not sure if it’s the mathematical symmetry, the youthfulness of the “2” or an indication of my genuine acceptance of this midlife decade. This birthday marks over 20 years of book loving. I was a late bloomer in the reading department, thanks to slow, painful (and assigned) 400 page descents into the worlds of rabbits and the French and Indian War, neither of which I cared about as a teen. Finally, as a college sophomore, I fell in love with Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and have been holding books in my hands ever since.

Last month I held something new, a birthday present from my mom that I wasn’t sure I wanted: my first eReader. A lifelong lover of books, mom is one of those early adopters who has been reading on Nooks and Kindles for years (and trying to convert me.) When I opened the birthday box, I laughed and may even have called her a “Kindle pusher,” but it was also love at first sight. I knew I was ready for this next step in my late-blooming reading career.

Part of my excitement was due to a growing list of titles on my “To Read” list that are only available in eBook format from my beloved library. I dove right in and read more books in May than I ever have in a month. I know how I feel when I see my Goodreads friends mark one book after another as “read” when I haven’t finished a book in a month, so here I will focus on my three most surprisingly impactful reads from May. I start a book with hopes of being changed somehow by the end – moved, affected, connected, disturbed, enlightened, inspired – and I am more interested in learning about how someone is affected by a book than how good they thought it was. What follows are three unusual books and how I am different because I read them:

Unmistakable: Why Only is Better Than Best by Srinivas Rao

I am an Unmistakable Creative podcast junkie, so this was the first book I downloaded to my new Kindle. Srini’s thoughtful questions and out-of-the-box guests fill my head with new ideas when I’m solo in the minivan, so I was eager to find out what he has learned about being unmistakable after interviewing over 500 creatives. His definition of unmistakable as “art that doesn’t require a signature” has stuck with me, and I could feel my self-trust growing with nearly every percentage increase on the bottom right corner of my Kindle screen. I am in a season of life when new dream-prayers are forming, and I emerged from this book with a new confidence in my intuition and instinct, what Srini calls “the two most unmistakable elements of art.” In recent weeks, as I write, I find myself digging deeper for what is true for me and worrying less about whether it is for others, and I credit this book for pushing me to this new layer of truth seeking.

Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence by Matthew Sanford

            The storyline of this one is enough to make you move it to the top of your “To Read” list: paraplegic becomes yoga teacher. I chose it for the exploration of mind-body healing more than the specific yoga component. Reading his experience with spinal cord rehabilitation as a Physical Therapist, I felt remorse for my profession’s tendency to idolize the body and neglect the mind. I deeply understood, with a lump in my throat, the author’s frustration with doctors’ presentation of his “paralysis and its accompanying silence [of more than half his body] as things to overcome, as obstacles that [he] must regularly confront and then actually defeat.” He challenged me to define what “overcome” means to me: embracing and integrating the hard stories of our lives more than defeating them and moving on

. Over the past year, I been working on unlearning a story I tell myself about stories. I used to believe the best stories in life are the ones in which someone endures something hard, then goes on to do Something Big with the very thing they overcame. To me, Something Big meant start a ministry, nonprofit or grow an online movement that changes the world. These are good stories, but they are not the only good stories or the best stories. In Sanford’s words, I am moving toward sharing “not what I wanted my story to be, not what I thought it should be, but what my story was.”

Immortal Diamond by Richard Rohr

            Books that merge God and the true self always capture my attention. And this one does it with an irresistible title! Surprisingly, I was more struck by Rohr’s observation of what happened when we made Jesus “only divine” than his discussion about true and false selves. In pulling Jesus out of the Trinity and choosing to focus on only his divine nature, “we ended up being only human, and the whole process of human transformation ground to a halt.” Wow. Rohr has challenged my dualistic mind before (The Naked Now) and here he did it again. Instead of saying Jesus is both divine and human or Jesus is God, he claims Jesus is “the union between God and the human.” This is a mind-blowing distinction for me, and has sent me on a quest for the human in Jesus and the divine in me. Or, as St. Catherine of Genoa so precisely put it: “My deepest me is God!”

As I transition to June, I’m ready to switch to lighter reads. I’m hoping for a summer of fiction, part paper and part Kindle.

(This is a post for #ReadUpstream, a hashtag that may become a movement, started by lovely, local writer friends who have hearts for promoting classics and out-of-the-ordinary books.)

Dear Holly…

by Kari

skeeze / Pixabay

Three years ago
we took a step
FORWARD
TOGETHER

And I’m humbled to
GROW
with you

Ups and

D
O
W
N
S

Twists and turns
SURPRISES and
disappointments
have not rocked our journey
FORWARD
TOGETHER

Because
God
Knew
God knew we needed
EACH OTHER

…on that little tea hike in the woods
…on that crazy trip to Portland
…on the phone when I questioned cutting off my dreadlocks
…on countless occasions of tears and silence

You share my joys
Help carry my load
You see my heart
And help tune it towards
our Father’s

And so we
GROW
offer grace
unconditional love
in the mysterious places

W
I
T
H
I
N

Continually asking Christ to
accompany us in our
COMMITMENT
PARTNERSHIP
FRIENDSHIP

I thank you
SINCERELY
for holding this fort down
over these many months…
for believing in me,
being patient with me

You are a beautiful writer
INSPIRATIONAL
EFFECTIVE
CONNECTING
INSIGHTFUL
LOVING

Happy 3rd Blog Birthday Holly!

 

 

 

skeeze / Pixabay

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.

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.