How I Learned to View Writing as a Spiritual Discipline

I read Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic a few months ago. I love books about creativity and adored Liz’s Magic Lessons podcast, so I couldn’t wait to dig into this book. (Admittedly, I’ve tuned out for season 2 of the podcast, but I still recommend the first season.) I began thinking I was reading a book about one thing (writing), but it turned out to be about much more than that. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the book’s subtitle isn’t “creative writing beyond fear.” It’s, “creative living beyond fear.”

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Some of Liz’s ideas–particularly about inspiration, ideas, and how they find us–are a little…woo-woo, shall we say? Evan rolled his eyes as I relayed some passages to him (which was absolutely the reaction I expected); he is far too rational for that sort of thing. I didn’t always agree wholeheartedly, but so much of what she said resonated with me.

Liz’s writing is never explicitly faith-based (though she often alludes to various kinds of spirituality), but as she described the Muse and inspiration and ideas, I thought about the Holy Spirit. Scripture attests to the idea that he keeps fellowship with us, and that we were created in the image of a very creative God. I thought of how Jesus asked us to be co-creators and to play an active, collaborative role in building his kingdom. I thought of what Nathan Foster says about praying with our imagination.

I found myself thinking about creatively approaching every area of life: motherhood, career, marriage, friendship. Let alone writing. Books that work their way into every nook and cranny of my existence are, in my opinion, the best kind.

When talking about her favorite poet, Liz wrote, “He became a poet the way other men become monks: as a devotional practice, as an act of love, and as a lifelong commitment to the search for grace and transcendence. I think this is probably a very good way to become a poet. Or to become anything, really, that calls to your heart and brings you to life.”

In the margin, I scribbled, “This is how I want to become a writer.” But, truly, that is how I want to become everything: daughter, sister, wife, mother, teacher, writer, friend. I want each role I play to be lived in out in a furious, generous act of love. I want it all to be evidence of my lifelong commitment to Jesus and the building of his kingdom.

Emily Freeman writes a blog series about unconventional and unexpected spiritual disciplines: practices like beginning where you are, learning nothing, and wearing better pants. Those posts are some of my favorites, because I am learning to view all of my life as a spiritual discipline. A spiritual discipline is anything we do day-in and day-out, like breathing, that connect us more to our souls and our God.

I usually describe writing as a hobby. When I was a journalism major, I would have described it as my future, hoped-for career. At certain times, I’ve described it as a sanity-saver. But it wasn’t until recently that I also began to understand writing, too, as a spiritual practice.

I am constantly scribbling prayers in the margins of my journal and Bible, and when I blog, it’s most often about the ways I see God showing up in and around me. But the connection goes even further: The very act of writing feels like prayer, like communion, like living and moving and having my being in Jesus.

What Centering Prayer is Teaching Me about “Enough”

I am rarely satisfied. (Side note: I can no longer say or write the word “Satisfied” without immediately launching into an internal Hamilton medley. I digress.)

I spend very little time fully present and content here: enjoying the exact place, time, vocation, energy level, activity in which I find myself. In the morning, I wish I got more sleep or woke up earlier to write. In the afternoon, I hope for time away from my boys but miss them when they aren’t around. I grumble about this stay-at-home mom gig but recall how envious I was of stay-at-home moms when I worked full-time. At the end of the day, I look around and see not what was accomplished (Three meals! Playtime! Grocery shopping!), but instead, I focus on all I left undone.

The Israelites wrestled with this too, I think. They were slaves and had every reason to wish for a different reality. Then God set them free, but they found it impossible to enjoy the journey toward the promised land. They couldn’t be satisfied until they reached their hoped-for destination. Because of this constant longing for more more more, an entire generation never saw the promised land for which they hoped. Even when God provided manna—reliably and faithfully dropping tangible nourishment right at their feet—they shouted, “More, God! And different!”

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“They willfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God; they said, ‘Can God really spread a table in the wilderness? True, he struck the rock, and water gushed out, streams flowed abundantly, but can he also give us bread? Can he supply meat for his people?” –Psalm 78:18-20

When I set out to try centering prayer, I thought I was just trying a new spiritual practice. I thought I would learn if this was an easier or better way to get more prayer into my life. (The achiever in me is so endearing, right?)

But I didn’t expect how this practice would gently (but quickly!) reveal a big blind spot in my life and faith. I am an Israelite most days, craving variety, ignoring the sustenance I’ve been provided and dreaming about the kind I’d rather have. 

In the introduction to Rising Strong, Brené Brown writes, “I define wholehearted living as engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

Enough laundry done today.
Enough meals planned this week.
Enough fulfillment in my current roles.
Enough companionship in my relationships.
Enough compassion to navigate this election season.
Enough patience to parent my children well.
Enough strength to carry and nourish this new baby.
Daily bread.

This, I think, is why a loaf of bread came to mind when I first thought about this practice. I needed to remember that nothing I do or don’t do determines my worth and value; I am valuable solely because I am a child of God.

Even more, this truth goes beyond my nature to also reflect the nature of God: He is enough, and what he offers is enough.

Enough love.
Enough joy.
Enough peace.
Enough patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Daily bread.

If I can believe that God is all of those things and provides all of those things, then I can believe that not only do I have enough, but I am enough as well.

Daily bread.

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Obsessions (September 2016)

It’s that time again! Each month, I share some of the best things I’ve read on the Internet, in 3 categories: faith and family, learning and creativity, and perfectionism and freedom. Happy reading!

 

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1. “Get the Epidural” by Jessi Klein.But how often do people really want women to be or do anything ‘natural’? It seems to me the answer is almost never. In fact, almost everything natural about women is considered pretty horrific. Hairy legs and armpits? Please shave, you furry beast. Do you have hips and cellulite? Please go hide in the very back of your shoe closet and turn the light off and stay there until someone tells you to come out. (No one will tell you to come out.) It’s interesting that no one cares very much about women doing anything ‘naturally’ until it involves their being in excruciating pain.”

In this piece, Jessi raises a point I’ve never heard before. (It doesn’t mean someone hasn’t made it. But I haven’t heard it.) Here’s the truth of the matter: I have never felt stronger and more capable than I felt while giving birth, even with an epidural. That does not change the fact that I have been made to feel guilty and less-than for having chosen some pain meds during labor! I think there are plenty of excellent reasons to have a “natural” birth, but I’m not sure that merely wanting to prove our own strength at women is one of them.

2. “Why this election makes me hate the word ‘evangelical’” by Russell Moore. “For years, secular progressives have said that evangelical social action in America is not about religious conviction but all about power. They have implied that the goal of the Religious Right is to cynically use the ‘moral’ to get to the ‘majority,’ not the other way around. This year, a group of high-profile old-guard evangelicals has proven these critics right. But thank God, that’s not the whole story.” 

3. “An Ode to Being Super Mom” by Kendra Adachi. “That night in bed, the darkness weighs heavy. / Or maybe it’s the pizza you picked up in your Chevy. / You cry in the silence, wishing the guilt would go away. / Why is it so hard to be Super Mom every day?”

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1. “A Mary Anne with Kristy Rising: On the Enduring Legacy of the Baby-Sitters Club Books” by J. Courtney Sullivan. “When we talk about The Baby-Sitters Club now, we don’t talk about which characters we were. We talk about which characters we are.”

I credit The Baby-sitters Club with turning me into an avid, lifelong reader. Would it have happened otherwise? Probably. But still: these books were the first to keep me up in the middle of the night, reading by flashlight.

2. “How to Be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit” by Rebecca Solnit. “It starts with passion even before it starts with words. You want to read people who are wise, deep, wild, kind, committed, insightful, attentive; you want to be those people. I am all for style, but only in the service of vision.”

3. “Seasons” by Austin Kleon. “Creative work has seasons. Part of the work is to know which season it is, and act accordingly.”

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1. “When rest is a necessity” by Alia Hagenbach.  We need an excuse to earn rest and carry our exhaustion and busyness like a completed chart full of gold stars.”

2. “How I Moved On From My What Not To Wear Style” by Stacy London. “…with time, we can form a new sense of out identities as useful and productive. I will have more to say and experience and share and love and do. Age is a gift, not simply because we aren’t dead. It’s the gift of time that allows us to change our prejudices and perceptions. We’ll be here longer to preserve history and make history. I want to celebrate that. I want to respect it.”  

I found this article by Stacy London fascinating. Sometimes, when I write, I have this sense that if I’m going to say something, I better be 100% sure because I can’t change my mind once I hit “publish.” I can only imagine how Stacy must feel as her style evolves, when she spent so much time telling people how they should dress! I love the freedom, yet seriousness, she expresses here. (Language warning.)

3. “On Overcoming” by Katie Schmidt.I posted something that was kinda true, but kinda not. I did this because…sometimes I just can’t convince myself that the truth is as important as how people perceive me.”

 

And, in other news: The first issue of The Drafting Desk lands in inboxes today!

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In our first issue, Rebekah and I are each sharing a little bit of our perfectionism “origin stories”: how we landed here and why we are writing on this topic. We are also including a free bonus download! If you haven’t yet subscribed, you can do that here. When you subscribe, you’ll get access to printable prayers for perfectionists and a beautiful phone and desktop wallpaper.

I can’t WAIT for you to get your first issue, and I’m thrilled you are joining us on the journey toward freedom.

The Surprising Spiritual Discipline that’s Changing How I Look at Prayer

I’ve always said I’m not very good at prayer. I have a prayer journal that I don’t always remember to open and refer to. Sometimes, I write my prayers in a Word document or in a Moleskine, and sometimes I pray out loud. I pray before dinner but never remember before breakfast or lunch. When I try to pray early in the morning or at night before bed, I nod off before I feel like I’ve gotten anywhere.

Along the way, I considered every incomplete thought, every unchecked box on my prayer list, every skipped mealtime a failure.

As if God sets a threshold for the amount of communication he expects, rather than rejoicing at each and every conversation. As if prayer is even something you can be good or bad at.

When Paul suggested we “pray continually,” he wasn’t giving a new, impossible command. Instead, he was suggesting that we can live our entire lives as if they are a conversation with God. It’s not easy, certainly, but also not as clear-cut as an item to cross of my to-do list. Did I pray without ceasing today? Check yes or no. This is not something at which we can fail or succeed, like a college course.

Prayer is simply another way of looking at and interacting with God and the world around me. 

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I recently heard Shauna Niequist on The God-Centered Mom podcast, and she talked about centering prayer, which was a practice totally unfamiliar to me. On the podcast, she explained how this practice has impacted her own spiritual journey, but she goes even further in her new book (which I loved and highly recommend). Shauna explained that in centering prayer, you focus on an image. When your thoughts wander, you just let them float by like a discarded flip-flip down a river, and return again to your image. The image Shauna focuses on during centering prayer is a big, red, kindergarten-style heart. Heather said that her image was her and Jesus, sitting on a swing together.

What could my image be? I wondered. I only thought about it for a moment when a new and rather unexpected idea struck me: a loaf of bread.

The image in my head was so random and so crystal clear, I can only describe it as having come from Jesus. But there it was: a warm loaf of yeasty, crusty bread, the top dusted with flour. A loaf of country bread, is how I imagine it would be labeled on our local bakery’s shelf. I could practically smell it.

When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He included the phrase “Give us today our daily bread.” It was his way of teaching them them to ask for enough. He told crowds to consider the birds and the lilies, which are always given just what they need. We can trust the Father to provide for us.

And of course, at the Last Supper, Jesus didn’t just suggest they pray for bread. He said he was the bread. He has spent the rest of history proving it to be true.

So, I’m trying this centering prayer business. It’s a new spiritual practice for me, and it’s transforming the way I look at God and look at what’s happening in and around me. I haven’t yet figured it out. I’m not in the habit of praying this way right when I wake up in the morning or before I go to bed. It’s an intermittent, once-in-awhile thing.

But this practice is reminding me that my perfectionism, achievement-driven tendencies aren’t helpful in my prayer life. I can’t just keep checking boxes; prayer is meant to be a conversation, a reflection of relationship, a way of life. This practice grounds me—centers me—back on Jesus and the way he provides and nourishes.

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How this Perfectionist is Learning to Rethink the Spiritual Disciplines

“Discipline” is one of my strengths on Strengthfinders. I hated that fact, when I first read my results. I wanted to cross it off the list and trade it for a different strength. Because 1. Boring, but 2. Wrong! I never think of myself as very self-disciplined. I only follow through on things when the approval of another person is on the line. (Gretchen Rubin would call me an obliger.)

I’ve since learned that the Strengthfinder people define discipline a little differently. They write, “Faced with the inherent messiness of life, you want to feel in control. The routines, the timelines, the structure, all of these help create this feeling of control.” Ah yes. That does sound like me.

I like rules, and I like tasks, and I like to be able to cross things off my to-do list and yes: It gives me an illusion of control over my time, my day, my life.

I don’t know when I first heard the term “spiritual disciplines,” but needless to say, I latched on. Here are what my perfectionist instincts tell me to do:

  1. Make a list of spiritual disciplines. A lot of them.
  2. Pull out today’s to-do list.
  3. Add each spiritual discipline to the list.
  4. Complete each discipline in a controlled environment and within a reasonable timeframe.
  5. Cross each item off the list.

Ahhh. Doesn’t that sound just like something Jesus would do?

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When I read Scripture these days, I see that’s how the Pharisees operated, and it’s how they tried to convince everyone around them to operate, too. They wanted to control their faith, as I have so often wanted to do.

But Jesus came and preached another way: “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly,” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster lists the disciplines as meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. I would have never even considered things like guidance, celebration, simplicity, or solitude as disciplines, primarily because How do I cross those off my list? They aren’t easily measured or tracked.

We are obsessed with metrics these days. We track the number of steps we take each day, moving something as simple as walking into the realm of accomplishment and enough/not enough. Facebook tells us how many people like what we have to say, and Instagram shows us how many people have watched our stories. (I’ve heard that there are actually cheat hashtags you can use on Instagram, to make it look like you have more likes and followers.) We believe these numbers give us value; this is our economy.

I’m not a numbers person, but I have created my own economy based on productivity, accomplishment, and doing enough.

Foster writes, “to know the mechanics does not mean that we are practicing the Disciplines. The Spiritual Disciplines are an inward and spiritual reality, and the inner attitude of the heart is far more crucial than the mechanics…”

My pursuit of the disciplines was hardly an unforced rhythm, because I was focused almost entirely on the mechanics.

My instinct is to view those practices as a means of getting good at faith and good at relationship with Jesus. And no doubt—there is work to be done. But Jesus doesn’t ask me to good at, well…anything.

He just asks me to follow, to watch, and to keep company. To be like Mary as his feet. He asks me to trust that He is good enough for the both of us, that His own goodness is transforming me.

When Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, what was she doing if not practicing and acting on her faith, like I wanted to by practicing the disciplines? But she did it so naturally, so joyfully, so instinctually. She sat and she listened.

I am learning to view these disciplines not as items to be crossed of my to-do list, but as perspectives to take on; as ways of looking at the world; and as means of interacting with myself, God, and others.

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I shared a little bit about this when I talked about what I learned this summer. Over the next few days, I’ll share some surprising new spiritual disciplines that are making a difference in my life. 

Some further reading:

I read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline a couple of years ago with our old small group, and I highly recommend it. That’s the book that got me thinking about the disciplines for the first time in a new light; he shares how to engage practically with these disciplines, but also captivatingly conveys the true meaning and vision behind them.

Not long after that, Emily Freeman began publishing posts about unexpected and unusual spiritual disciplines, which I love. Those posts have also been instrumental in helping me look differently at the rhythms and routines in my own life, and how they all can be tools for helping us follow Jesus.

 

Settling in to Church

I am guest posting on Debby Hudson’s blog today, about how I have relearned what it means to be part of a church since moving. Debby is a fellow member of Hope*Writers, and she writes about creating space for grace. This month, she is running a series all about the church–what it is, what it’s not, and what it could be. I’m honored to join the conversation!


About a year and a half ago, our family packed up a giant yellow Penske truck and moved from Florida to Michigan. A lot has been challenging about this transition: adjusting to new schedules and routines, living far from family, making new friends, finding a replacement for my beloved Publix, living months at a time with no Chick-fil-A sandwiches.

But in many ways, the most challenging element of our move was finding a new church.

When my husband Evan and I were long-distance dating, attending his church was one of my favorite things about our visits. I still remember where I was sitting the first time I heard someone say the church’s vision out aloud. I now know that it wasn’t groundbreaking—it’s what God called His people to long ago—but it was the first time I heard God’s vision for Church articulated so clearly. I was hooked. We didn’t imagine that soon, that community would be our family, and I would spend several years on the church staff, doing what has been the most fulfilling and life-giving work of my life thus far.

Leaving that place felt like heartbreak. In many ways, we are still mourning the loss.

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I’ve been following along with the other posts in Debby’s series. My favorite so far is this one from Racheal Webster about what’s really behind everything we hear about millenials leaving the church. Racheal wrote, “I offer up the suggestion that Christian millennials are not disenchanted with Jesus; rather, we are disenchanted with a church culture that contradicts the Jesus we know.” And all God’s people said “amen!” 

Coming Home to Autumn

The air has become cooler and more crisp over the past week. We’ve opened the windows more, making a point to crack even the practically-stuck-shut kitchen windows that only Evan can open. The air is just too good; I can’t let a single room of the house go unloved.

I may have noticed that later this week, the forecast calls for 89 degrees again, but I’m in denial. Yesterday, Evan looked out the front window and pointed out that two houses down, the very top leaves on our neighbor’s tree are tinged red already.

I love autumn. Even when we lived in Florida, I craved fall. I savored the rare day in the seventies and longed for more. Laying claim to a real autumn season is perhaps the greatest thing about living in Michigan.

I’m trying to decide why. Why do I love this season so much, when I’ve barely experienced it?

When the temperatures drop and the breeze picks up, when grocery stores fill their front sidewalks with pumpkins and the whole world seems tinted slightly red and orange, when we watch Gameday on Saturday mornings, and when school buses begin driving down the street again: this is all it takes for me to feel refreshed, reenergized, as though even the most mundane has become new and lovely again.

My whole being seems to give a sigh of relief, to release some tension I’ve been unwittingly clinging to. It feels nostalgic, as though I’m remembering something I had forgotten until just now, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

What is it, exactly, that my soul remembers?

I remember Saturday afternoons in the J.C. Penney fitting room, hinting for the perfect pair of back-to-school jeans.

I remember carving a pumpkin on the back patio with my dad, scooping the guts and pumpkin seeds onto a big black trash bag.

I remember waking up in my dorm room, to the sound of orange and blue RVs blasting the Gator’s fight song.

I remember the sound of a bike’s little bell behind me and the tires bouncing along the cobblestones, as I move further to the righthand side of of the sidewalk on campus.

I remember a cooler of beers and Missy’s corn casserole and grateful prayers around the table at “friendsgiving.”

I remember packing Thanksgiving leftovers into empty Cool Whip tubs, then gathering around Grandma’s kitchen table to play Phase 10.

And here in Michigan, new memories, from just a year ago:

I remember donning gloves and heavy coats to go apple picking.

I remember stopping to pass my toddler a pouch of applesauce, in the midst of a stroll downtown during Art Prize.

I remember just last year: a newborn, skin still red and wrinkly, dozing in the swing between feedings, while my family squeezed in around our tiny kitchen table.

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Autumn isn’t just about the cooler air, though it’s a welcome relief. It’s not just about the pumpkins and cinnamon, though I love them both. And it’s true: I don’t totally get what it’s about. But this slow walk toward winter, toward Advent, toward Christmas, this winding down of Ordinary Time: it feels like coming home.