Opportunities for Conversation and Relationship

I love when in a moment, through a book you are reading or a podcast you’ve heard, you can hear the gentle voice of God speaking. Some people get it right away. They read something and the words seem to lift off the page, setting themselves apart from the rest, asking for attention. And you know, just know, those words are for you.

And then there are times when you see them, giving only a glance, and move on. But God wants more than a glance. He wants your attention. He wants my attention. This personal God doesn’t give up. He nudges you again, this time through a song, a blog, a phone call. He doesn’t just want to be heard, He wants to have a conversation. He wants a relationship.

This morning I had one of those experiences. I wish I could say I gave Him my full attention when the words pressed against me. I noticed them and even underlined them with pencil (I read that way, with a pencil in hand. If I lend anyone a book, I am being vulnerable, allowing them into my personal world of underlining and unedited margin commentary), but I moved on and didn’t engage with them. I didn’t engage with God either. Thankfully, He is patient and persistent in His desire for relationship with each of us.

I used to dismiss these experiences as chance, coincidence. After all, some of the moments actually came from a Secular source. I say this with a little playful sarcasm because there was a  time I limited God to speaking to me only through Christian books, music, movies, and the Bible. Yikes! I was limiting God, but this is for another blog post.

phonto

Though God might have to repeat Himself using many sources to get my attention, I don’t dismiss words that jump out at me anymore. I don’t discount a repeated theme in my daily experience. I am getting better at recognizing the moments.

They aren’t simply instructional times for me anymore, though often they are quite instructional. They are relational experiences. I sit and think about what I am hearing, meditate on it, if you will. And then I start talking or writing. I ask God questions and sit with Him. It may sound a little nuts to some, but I am convinced God is not limited in how He can speak.

Today, He had to repeat Himself, and I didn’t feel His displeasure or impatience. I felt his love and His desire to spend time with me. The same patience a mother has with her small inquisitive child, God has with all of us.

This personal, intimate God is waiting for us to hear Him speak and longing for us to respond.

The Organic Nature of Living Your Story

This morning I was baking banana chocolate chip mini muffins from the turning bananas in my fruit bowl. I lovingly say that I think they show up on my grocery list not as an item to be eaten but as suggestion to bake muffins. As I was pulling them from the oven, I started to free each muffin, forcing each bite out with a knife. By the second pan I noticed how I was working at freeing the muffins, circling the knife around the edge of each cup, popping them out. I reached for the third pan and  decided to just turn it over, and effortlessly, nine out of the twelve just fell out into the basket. I only had to use the knife for three. The final pan released ten, leaving me with two to free. IMG_4605

It made me consider how many times have I worked so hard to make my story happen. Rather than allow it to unfold, I have forced things. But what if I stepped back and waited, allowing things to fall into place, waiting for them to intersect my life? I’m not talking about passivity here. I am talking about a life that is open, that is not full of striving for everything.

There are many things that require effort, sweat, energy.  Like the three muffins clinging to the pan, they’re ready but need assistance to land in the basket. It’s obvious. We have to work to make parts of our life work – apply for college, clean the house, go to work, grocery shop. But are there other parts we could open ourselves to – the unexpected, the random, the unplanned?

I am finding that this life is much more organic than I realized. It reminds me of an English country garden – effortless, informal, whimsical, random, beautiful. Everything doesn’t bloom all at once. Daffodils peek their heads out in the spring. Roses, geraniums, daisies, black-eyed Susan’s, hydrangeas, mums, all take their turn showing off in the garden.

Gardens take work, to be sure. They must be weeded, pruned, thinned out. One cannot be passive if they want a beautiful garden, but we can’t forget, they are to be enjoyed. So much of what happens in a garden involves waiting – waiting daily to be wowed by the beauty that greets you.

Life is like that. Living your story is like that. I know you will have to tend and weed, but I so hope you will be able to enjoy the beauty that’s in store. I hope you can stop striving to make your story a good one. I hope you can be engaged in the life you have. I hope you can enjoy the way it wows you. And most of all I hope you can stop judging it prematurely.

Remember, your life is a beautiful story and it’s still being written every moment you live.

31 dAYS

Glorious Interruptions

The 31 Day Challenge is almost at a close for me and countless others who embarked on this journey twenty-nine days ago. For various reasons, this was more of a challenge for me this time around. Last year, I wrote everyday, even if I had to stay up into the wee hours of the morning to get a post completed. And God was faithful to inspire me everyday of that journey. It was a thrill and a joy.

This year He still was faithful, speaking to me daily about Living Your Story or  umpteen other things I needed inspiration on. He has always been present and for that I am grateful. But it has been difficult. I look at my index page and see days with no postings and I cringe. A perfectionist hates to see empty spaces where there should be hyperlinked blog post titles. The team sponsoring the challenge has gently encouraged us along the way to not beat ourselves up for missing days. So, I am resisting the temptation to pinch my head off my shoulders.

I want to be the kind of girl that shows up. I think my writing mentor said that in class. I really do. I want to show up everyday and create, write, paint, love, share. I don’t want to let anyone down, but even more, I don’t want to let myself down. This challenge is for others, but mostly it’s for me, the writer.

practice

I am learning to be kind to myself. Being kind to one’s self is counterintuitive for a perfectionist. We relentlessly drive ourselves to complete tasks, even when life interrupts our plans. This year, I did give into some interruptions, and some were pretty glorious.

  • Seeing my uncle’s daughter get married on the beach and celebrating their union with jazz music and lovely company.
  • Spending three nights with my Irish Twin – three sleepy, funny, giggly nights.
  • Celebrating my friend’s birthday week. I love that she allowed herself to be a production this year.

And so much more.

The point is, part of living your story is to be open to the interruptions, glorious or otherwise. And when the interruptions jack up your to do list, be kind to yourself and go with it. Stories, like life, go off script all the time. But some of those unplanned, impromptu moments can be very special and insightful, and sometimes just fun.

Life took me off script this month, and I’m good with that.

31 dAYS

Am I Living a Good Story?

This idea of Living Your Story really started when Kevin and I came across one of Donald Miller’s books, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I so appreciate Miller’s candor and his story telling style. He doesn’t try to fill in all the gaps or give the reader a How To sort of book. He takes us on a journey, not a destination.

In this story, Miller was faced with the question, am I living a good story? The question came from the most unlikely of scenarios. Sometime after completing his bestselling autobiography, Blue Like Jazz, he was approached by two gentlemen who wanted to make his book into a movie. Flattered and intrigued, he said yes. During the screen writing process, changes and adjustments were made to his life story to make the film more engaging. The screenwriters told him in order to make a good movie, the story needed more action; it had to move in such a way that the audience would want to hang on and keep watching. This left him with a disturbing thought, if his story needed changing then maybe it wasn’t a good one. This question set him off on a quest to live a more vibrant and engaging life.

As a writer, he spent a great deal of time writing about God, faith, and life, but as he was doing it, life was passing him by.  He was writing about story but he wasn’t living his. He wasn’t engaging in his own. Let’s face it, whether you are engaging or not, you are living your story.

living your story

Long before I had this epiphany, my close friend was already well on her way to living an engaged life. She had been taking stock of her story and saw all the ways she had been passively living her life. This revelation was painful, and as a friend, it was painful to watch her grieve. But she was present in her struggle. She stayed in it and let God heal her, transform her, and love her. It has been incredible to watch. For an entire year, she was encouraging me, her friends, her family, and anyone who would listen to engage, embrace, and enjoy life.

I wish I could say I caught on and took up the cheer engage, embrace, enjoy, engage, embrace, enjoy. I didn’t. Maybe I wasn’t ready. But when I picked up Miller’s book I was ready to listen.

It has been a journey, to be sure. Along the way, I have discovered to live an engaged life, I must be present. I must take an active role like a character rather than a passive one like a reader. I know, not all readers are passive. I have to be invested in my story, be engaged with the characters, and be part of the writing process. Passive living is technically living, but I’m not sure it’s life.

Happy early birthday to my friend who daily engages, embraces, and enjoys her life. As I often say, I liked you before, but you are a lot more fun now. Living life with this engaged you is like watching a movie in living color. “You know I love you more than my luggage.”

31 dAYS

What I Learned from the Flying Circus

Last night I got to enjoy my husband’s Fathers’ Day gift. Knowing how much he likes comedians, our crew gave him two tickets to see Eric Idle and John Cleese’s Together Again at Last for the Very First Time Comedy Tour. It was hilarious and insightful and a little bawdy, but what can you expect from two members of Monty Python?

IMG_4536

The evening was filled with sketches, video, music, and some reminiscing. In aging Monty Python style, Idle and Cleese sat on red oversized chairs and shared with the audience how they met and how their comedy troupe, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, began. Their story was fascinating.

When they first approached BBC with their idea, they really didn’t have much of a concrete plan, except they wanted to do comedy sketches. Even with a nebulous proposal, they were given a slot on Sunday night British television to do as they wanted. And Monty Python was born.

What intrigued me about their story is that the cast were all writers and they had no plans to hire performers. It would be a do-it-yourself production. In preparation for a show, they would break into groups to write sketches and when they reconvened, the pairs would try their material in front of the team. If everyone laughed, it would become part of the show, and if not, it was trashed. Cleese commented that the one thing they never argued about was who would play what character. If you wrote it, you played in it. In a room full of funny people, people with egos and opinions, they never fought over who would play what role. That fascinates me.

It made me think of the story each of us is living. We are individuals, and as individuals, we are also part of a group, a community, a troupe. We struggle sometimes over who should play certain roles. I know I do. But, if we are writing part of the story, why would we hand over our role to someone else? Yes, we are part of a team, but each member is valuable and there is a time for each member to take the lead.

Leading makes me uncomfortable, but from time and time I have been pushed into that place. In almost every instance, I have tried to pass off leadership to someone I thought was more confident, more qualified, more polished. One wise friend saw what I was doing, and gently reminded me, “Susan, we asked you to lead this group, not ________. You can do this. I believe in you.”

I believe in you. Those words should be edifying and encouraging, right? But all they did for me was make me feel like an imposter. I would think to myself if you only knew me and my skill level, you would change your mind in a heartbeat. Or I would think about someone who seemed infinitely more suited for the position and feel even more inadequate.

Sometimes we get to lead, with knees knocking and pulse racing. We may not feel qualified, wanting to pass our role off to someone else, but that would be a mistake. We get to be the leading character in our story. Yes, there are times we get to have a supporting role in someone else’s story – a role I’m very comfortable with –  but we can’t stay there. We would miss our own story, our own contribution to the world.

I love that the performers of Monty Python were also the writers. I love that they didn’t pass off their roles. I love that they really didn’t have a solid plan going into production except they wanted to do comedy. I love that they respected each member’s opinion and sense of humor and that was enough for them. I love that the opinion of their friends and colleagues were more important than the opinion of the critics. I love that they were creative and enjoyed what they did for years and years and years.

I went to the Comedy Tour to be entertained, but left not only entertained but also inspired. Thank you, Eric Idle and John Cleese, for sharing lessons from The Flying Circus.

31 dAYS

 

The Thrill of a Name Tag

Ecstatic, overjoyed, elated, thrilled, tickled pink, giddy with excitement – these words somewhat describe how I felt for at least five minutes of my day.

My friend (and often partner in crime) and I were invited to be guests at a Women Executives (WE) Author’s Luncheon in Downtown Charlotte today. Though this was an incredible experience, and it truly was, my tickled pink moment actually happened before the event was even underway.

We walked through the doors and were greeted by two nicely dressed women, obviously executives volunteering as greeters, and they gave us our name tags. I have worn many a name tag in my lifetime, but this one, well, it absolutely thrilled me.

IMG_4529

Do you see it? Can you see why it made me so excited? Yes, it included my name, and also identified me as a guest of one of the authors (a big thank you to Judith Sutton), but it also had something I had never seen before by my name – writer.  IT ACTUALLY SAID WRITER!

My friend, who also happens to be a writer and so many other wonderful things, was equally excited by her title, so we did what any self respecting guest to an executive event would do – we ran like middle school girls to the bathroom to take pictures. Yes, we actually did and just thinking about it makes me smile.

FullSizeRender (2)

I’ve been writing recreationally for over two years. It started as a request someone made of me, grew into a blog because my sister believed in me, moved to a writing class to see if I believed in myself, and has grown into a love and a regular part of my life. And now, writer was on my name tag for a roomful of women to see, for me to see. What an incredible moment.

The funny thing is, last night I was rehearsing what I would say if an executive asked me what I did for a living. Starting with I’m a writer seemed like a good idea since that’s what I’ve been doing lately, and then I would continue by telling her I have spent the last twenty-five years working with several non-profits. You know the kind of non-profit I’m talking about – mothering, homeschooling, tutoring, teaching, Bible study, Women’s ministry, Praise Team, caring for aging grandparents, volunteering, proofing and editing papers for my husband while he was working on his Masters and PhD, and on and on. I actually got to use my rehearsed line once, and it was received well.

You know, I’ve spent half of my years living this non-profit kind of life, at least a life not profitable in a financial sense of the word. I cannot begin to express the gratitude I feel towards my husband for making it possible. I have treasured these years and all the experiences. It hasn’t always been easy but it has been rewarding, fulfilling, life changing, emotional, and life giving.

I rarely give my non-profit life a second thought, that is, until I’m with people who have careers, the work-for-profit kind. Then I suddenly find my value begins to leak and my confidence starts to shrink.

Why do people deflate themselves through comparison? Why is it so hard to embrace and celebrate ourselves in the company of others?

Today, I was recognized as a writer, and believe me, that was a high point. But a nametag doesn’t make me a writer. A paycheck doesn’t make me one either. What makes me a writer is this, I WRITE. And it just so happens that I love doing it.

Whatever it is that you do, for-profit or not-for-profit, do it. It’s a gift. You don’t need a name tag for it to be true. And you don’t need a title or a big paycheck for it to be valuable. It’s worth comes from you, because you’re doing it. No two people do anything the same. Everything you touch is a one of a kind original.

Tomorrow morning when I pry my eyes open, I will remember I am a writer even if I don’t have the name tag to prove it.

31 dAYS

Held: the Power of a Name

Over the Christmas holidays last year, my husband and I went to see the movie, Wild. I was riveted, repulsed, intrigued, moved, heart broken, nauseated, but more than anything, I was gripped. Cheryl Strayed’s journey from grief to life pulled me in and spoke to me on so many levels.

After losing her mother, Cheryl went on a journey of self destruction and abuse (that was the repulsive, nauseating, heart breaking part), and at some point, after losing almost everything important to her, she decides to hike alone on the Pacific Coast Trail starting in the Mojave Desert and ending at the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon.

One of the important things she lost along the way was her husband in a divorce. They were amiable about the whole thing, but their marriage was destroyed and they decided to end it. Here are her words about the experience.

When we were filling out the divorce documents there was this line on which you could write whatever you wanted your new legal name to be. So much was ending and beginning for me then—I tell the whole story in my memoir, Wild. I knew naming myself was important and I set about it with great intention in the months before my ex and I finalized our divorce. I read the dictionary. I searched favorite novels and poems. One day the word strayed came to me and I knew it was my name…Strayed is the realest name I’ll ever have. It feels like my heritage.

Interview with Cheryl Strayed.

She was incredibly deliberate about naming herself. For her, the definition of strayed aptly described her life up until then – to move away aimlessly from a group or from the right course or place.

That act of naming herself so impacted me that I gave the idea a lot of thought and prayer. No, I didn’t legally change my name, but I did think about what it would be at this point in my life, if I could change it. And this is the name I came up with, Susan Held. In this season of my life, I feel held by God. I no longer feel like there is a relational separation caused by my sin or failure that I have to build a bridge back to through good works and performance. I am held because He loves me just the way I am, not because I am good but because He is good and I am His.

The truth is, we all could change our last name to Held right now because it’s true. He loves us not based on our behavior or our actions. He loves because that’s who He is. And He holds us in that love. Healing came to my heart when I started living in the reality that I am loved and I am held by Love. As it turns out my name could have been Susan Held all along because He has held me from the day I was born into this world. I didn’t always sense it, but He was.

And He is holding you now in His love. It may be hard to accept or believe, and that’s okay. I lived a long time unable to believe this. I didn’t do anything special to live in this awareness. I simply started asking Him to convince me of His love for me. It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s happening and it’s changing me. Everyday I live, He continues to convince me. I don’t need to convince myself. He is able.

So, when the story of my life is finished and you see the name Susan Held on the cover, I hope you’ll remember it’s me.

31 dAYS

Friends: People Who Think You’re Wonderful

What kinds of friends have you surrounded yourself with? It’s a really important question to ask and the answer might say a lot about how you view yourself and others.

Years ago, a dear friend of mine and her family started attending a different church. We were good friends and had been through a lot together – homeschooling, ministry, leadership, starting a church. Anyway, after a couple of weeks, she gave me a call to catch up on family stuff and life. The subject of her new church came up, and she was eager to share some of the wisdom she had learned there.

She began her discussion about her new church with, “Our pastor encourages us to surround ourselves with people who think we are wonderful.” I was silent. I was waiting for the laughter, the disagreement, the scorn, but to my surprise, she was all on board with this fresh insight. She continued, “He told us if you have people in your life that want to change you, you don’t need them.” I remember saying words like wow and really in response. We spoke for a while and finished our conversation after sharing stories of church and family. We stayed in touch for many years and had a couple of other shared experiences after that. The funny thing is, she was really one of those people who thought I was wonderful, and I felt the same way about her.

Anyway, fast forward seventeen years, and I still remember those words. The only difference is, I am now finally convinced her pastor was right.

Let me explain. I always struggled with liking myself. I think I was born with a self improvement book in my hand. I actually avoided reading fiction for over twenty years (with the exception of homeschool related fiction) in favor of self improvement books because I wanted to be better. I felt like I needed to improve myself so that God’s opinion and the opinion others had of me would improve. So, I found myself gravitating towards people who I thought were either better than me (a model I could aspire to) or people who wanted to change me (a job I thought was very much needed). The thought of anyone thinking I was wonderful was ridiculous.

Wonderful

Guess what, I am finally starting to believe I am wonderful. And so are YOU.

In Psalm 139, the Psalmist proclaims, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well.” He was literally convinced of his value and worth.

Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, “ For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” This means we are a one of a kind original created by the Creator. As far as I am concerned, that makes our value PRICELESS.

And right from Jesus’ mouth he says, “I no longer call you slaves, because the slave does not understand what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because I have revealed to you everything I heard from my Father.” I am a friend of God.  Can there be anything of more worth than being His friend?

A wonderfully made creation, a masterpiece, a friend of God is not an improvement project for people to take on. God likes you just the way you are. If you read all the self help books available until He returns, it would in no way change His opinion of you. Yes, He is transforming you into His image, the image man/woman was initially made in, but He doesn’t need any help from your friends. He is enough. He alone can change you, and what’s more, he isn’t in a hurry to do so. And here’s the biggie, He’s not doing the work of sanctification so that He can stand to be around you. He loves to be around you. He just sees your potential, and knows you can live in that place.

So, it turns out that her pastor was right. We do need to surround ourselves with people who think we are wonderful because God thinks we are wonderful. Any person who has a lower opinion of you than the God of the universe is not the kind of person you need as a friend. Your group of friends in your story might be small but that’s okay. Jesus hung with a small group himself.

31 dAYS

Are You Trying to Make Your Story Look Like a Christian One

I am not a big fan of Christian fiction, and frankly, I feel the same way about Christian movies. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll give them an E for effort. Yes, there was a time when E, not F, was the lowest level of the letter grading system.  Authors and screen writers passionately want to share their faith with the world and strengthen the faith of those already professing, so they create works that are dripping with the Gospel. And I want to say for the record, THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT, NOTHING AT ALL. On so many levels, I get it, but I don’t have to like it.

When I look back to the moment I began a personal, intimate, life changing relationship with God, I remember so wanting my life to drip with the Gospel of Jesus Christ because I wanted everyone to know Him. So I started to learn the language. I picked up a few Christian words and phrases stewardship, under the blood, answering the call, repent. Then I asked some older, more seasoned Christians what I needed to do now that I had joined them. They gave me the top five:

  • wake up early to pray and read your Bible
  • go to church whenever the doors are opened
  • tithe on what you earn
  • study the Scriptures
  • Don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or listen to secular music (Honestly, I had to look up the word secular. I had no idea God had an opinion about music).
Now I was ready to drip with the Gospel. Everyone would know my story was a Christian one because I was following the top five behaviors and was becoming fluent in Christianese. I went home to visit my mom and sisters and tried my new language on them. My mom had the most confused look on her face when I opened my mouth, especially when I quoted Scripture whenever it seemed appropriate and when it wasn’t. And then they got a front row seat to my new behavior, complete with crack of dawn devotionals and free verse prayers which omitted the catholic sign of the cross. I honestly think my mom thought I had lost my mind or had joined a cult, or both.
My intentions were sincere – I wanted the world to know Him and by acting and speaking like one of His followers, they would want to know Him. I can tell you this, my behavior and language didn’t necessary draw many to the faith. I was preachy and to be honest, a little odd, at least to those who knew me before. My mom and sisters didn’t want to be like me in any possible way and thought I had jumped into the deep end of crazy. I am happy to report no humans were deeply hurt in the early years of making my story, and despite my best/worse efforts, my family has a loving and intimate relationship with God.
Not all new converts live out their faith like I did. Some beautifully allow God to transform them and focus on loving Him, allowing any behavior or speech changes to happen organically. And I am not here to bash Christians. I am one. But what I want to say is if you’re a believer in Jesus, then your life is a Christian story. And if you live in relationship with Him, He will do the transforming in your life and in the life of others. You don’t have to worry about making your story look Christian at all. If Christ lives in you, your life will drip with the Gospel – the Gospel of grace and truth. Your mouth doesn’t have to drip with the Gospel like a faucet that never shuts off.
Your life without all the props of language and religious looking behavior is a beautiful, authentic, redemptive love story and you don’t have to manage it. No two stories should look alike because each is an original. I’m glad because I am really into original, and I think God is too.
31 dAYS

The Lost Character in the Story

maincharacter

This is a question I started asking myself a couple of years ago. It seems ridiculous to ask, doesn’t it? After all, if it’s my story, I must be the main character, the protagonist, the leading lady. Practically speaking, however, I lived more like a secondary character most of my life.

To say I’m the leading character felt selfish to me. Yes, it’s my story, but as a Christian woman, isn’t life about making my story about others – my children, my husband, the neighbors, my family, people in need? That sounded right to me. My role was to love others above myself, to elevate their story and make it the best possible version it could be.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved serving, loving my family, giving to others, but after a long stint, I started feeling empty, used up, and exhausted. I didn’t think my story mattered at all. I didn’t think I mattered at all. I thought my value to God was found in making the stories of others more important.

But God has a different opinion. When asked by the Pharisees what was the greatest commandment of all, Jesus answered, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.” And I spend a lifetime trying to do this.

Loving our neighbor as ourselves is where a lot of us get it wrong. We love our neighbors, our children, our family, the lost, the church, but we don’t love ourselves. We skip the last part of the command, as yourself . He told us to love others as we love ourselves. That means we can only love those characters in our story when we love ourselves.

And part of loving ourselves is recognizing that we are indeed the main character of our story, and we matter. Our opinions, our likes and dislikes, our dreams, our tastes all matter. God loves us wildly and lavishly. He loves to dream with us, plan with us, give us the desires of our heart. He is intimately present in our stories and He made each of us the main character of our story. As we learn to love ourselves, then we can love the other marvelous characters we get the privilege of knowing.

Being the main character of your story isn’t selfish; it’s loving. Learning to love yourself will profoundly change you, and that love will overflow to others.

31 dAYS