But I . . .

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have never cared about holiness. When I read Scripture, sang songs, or heard conversations about God’s holiness, I felt wholly unmoved. It would probably be a stretch to characterize my reaction as unimpressed, but there was probably a little bit of the Makalyla Maroney face inside of me when I’d contemplate the concept of holiness.

Over the years, my reaction bothered me. Why did other Christians feel so awed, moved, and inspired by God’s holiness–while I felt nothing at all?

My personality type typically leads to a more analytical, critical approach to everything, including spirituality. So I tried not to hammer myself too harshly for my lack of sentiment. But regarding other aspects of God, and in other areas of my relationship with God, I experienced plenty of light bulb moments, ahas, and spiritual awakenings. I wanted to understand this holiness thing, too.

This year I decided to embark on a journey to “get it.” I studied root words in Greek and Hebrew. I devoured Scripture related to holiness and specific stories in the Bible which grabbed my attention. I also started reading A.W. Tozer again, an author I’d tried out in early adulthood but hadn’t found captivating at that point in life. I had too much drama swirling in my life at that point pulling my attention away from what really mattered. 15 years later, I’m able to concentrate. And I guess what they say is true–when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. This time, God has shown Himself to me through Tozer in spades.

I’m finally grasping that the power of understanding anything about Who God Is lies in contrast. When I see who I really am, and compare who I am to Who He Is, then I understand the value in Who He Is.

This sounds simple, but it’s not easy for those of us who’ve struggled with playing God. Trusting God is difficult, particularly for those of us who’ve experienced trauma that  seems to demonstrate that God is not there for us, that God does not come through for us when the rubber hits the road, and that we must rely on our ourselves or be thrown to the wolves. We begin to develop our own plans, a sturdy sense of self-reliance, and an ego akin to a tumor whose mass increases at an alarming rate.

Therein lies tension.

But all is never lost when God’s in the mix. The beautiful thing is that while it’s true that what we’ve been through is often beyond horrific–and many of you reading this will not relate, and that’s okay, because many of you will, and you will find hot tears falling down your face as you read this just as mine are sliding into my coffee as I write this–it’s ALSO true that what we have been through is not who we are. Let me say that again so you can whisper it to yourself.

What you have been through is not who you are.

We often allow what we have been through to define us. That’s called spiritual warfare.

If we’re not what we’ve been through, then who are we? Ah, the journey really starts here. For some of us, we never knew who we were to begin with. For others, it’s a return to a better place.

Regardless, when I honestly and objectively look at who I am today, even on my best days and after years of diligent spiritual work, I can guarantee a few things. I’m broken. I’m incapable of total consistency to principles, excellent decision-making, perfection, or any other concept or spiritual practice/discipline. As much as I want to be, I’m not self-sufficient. I need help–I need God, and I need other people (mentors and accountability partners). I’m not going to last forever–I’m going to die. I wish I could say I know everything, but I don’t; I’m not that wise, and without Google and the library, I’d be pretty lost. And admittedly, I try my best to love others, but I don’t like several people. I attempt to be kind, gracious, and generous, but there are many times when I’m just going through the motions (and if you knew what was going through my head, you’d give me coal in my stocking next year for Christmas).

That’s just the honest truth about me. And it’s the honest truth about you, too, because we are people. If you believe those things are not the truth about you, you are likely incapable of being honest with yourself, and that’s another problem entirely (and another blog post for another time).

And here is the honest truth about God.

He does not need us, but He wants us. He is fully self-sufficient, but He loves to see/hear us serving and loving–doing God-like things which honor Him. God lasts forever, and God just IS–time as we know it isn’t the way God operates. God is not malleable; He doesn’t change, so He’s completely consistent and reliable. God knows everything–which isn’t the same as saying God causes everything. God is completely faithful, and is the only One we can depend on wholeheartedly no matter what. God really is good, just, and loving 100% of the time. And He is holy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGod is the absolute antithesis of who I am. Because God is God–and I am not.

I have been rereading Isaiah. This morning, I got to chapter 49. I stopped at this verse and began imagining other ways God might speak to us similarly. The first portion is Isaiah 49:15-16. The rest is from me.

But I . . . 

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

Though she may forget
I will not forget you!

See, I have engraved you
on the palms of my hands.”

Though they interrupted,
I hear you.

Though you were invisible,
Now you are seen.

Though no one applauded for years,
Here I AM, rejoicing over you.

Though they said ‘stop crying,’
I weep with you.

Though he stripped you of dignity,
I vindicate.

Though frailty ravaged your frame,
I make all things new.

Though dreams atrophied,
I restore years the locust has eaten.

Though cacophony and chaos cluttered days,
I still waves.

Though they’ve proven liars,
I will always be true.

Though they are,
But I AM.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Word of the year 2017

In early December, it grew bitterly cold in Arkansas. I stoked the wood stove full day in and day out, wore my fuzziest pajama pants, and only went outside to feed and water the chickens, pups, and cats. The icy wind tunneled through Duncan Hollow, determined to freeze the fresh water I’d poured for the animals the moment I poured it.

Sometimes the weather matches my mood. It did then. My father-in-law died the first week of December. A few days later, every leaf clinging stubbornly to the tall oak trees in our woods fell silently. In my grief, I didn’t even notice them falling. One morning as I drank my coffee, I glanced out the glass door in my office, overlooking the trails where the old barn used to be. A week earlier, some of the trees held onto their crunchy brown jackets in stubborn refusal to let go of autumn. That morning, I was met by bleak winter.

gulin-1028130_1920

Gulin, China–One of the images I focused on 

During that cold, bitter time, God came to me through images of smooth lakes, calm water, and iridescent moonlit walks I took when I lived at my old house. He came to me through a specific song I’d long forgotten but dearly loved, a soothing song I listened to repeatedly when I first loved it and listened to again this December while meditating. I pictured my father-in-law beckoning me to follow him to a still, quiet, joyful place when I felt overwhelmed by grief. Christ came to me through a story of a group of very manly men who were scared to death by a storm, so scared they couldn’t help but wake up their Leader and ask Him for help in the middle of the night. Christ spoke to me by sharing a specific word with me which, for two months, I thought was my focus word for 2017, a word which tied all these things loosely together.

But I never felt solid about writing about this word or sharing specific details about these things on my blog. So I didn’t. I’ve grown to write less and less for my personal blog, partly out of necessity for lack of time, and partly because what matters most to me is deeply personal, so personal and spiritual I’m unwilling to splay it online unless I feel compelled.

I also hesitated to land on that word because its meaning, for me, denoted a lack of color and life. And while I knew I’d needed that word desperately during December and January, while grieving deeply and walking in quiet, solitary pain, I was ready for more.

Last weekend, I walked a labyrinth with my friends at a spiritual retreat and let my feet fall into rhythm, purposely following an earthen path countless others have trod in an effort to find 30 minutes of peace. Afterward, I chatted with two ladies while the afternoon sun warmed our faces on the way back to the lodge. One of them shared with me about the growth of her small business. This peaked my interest since I opened my own business less than one year ago. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but she shared something about one of her associates mentioning that it was important to let things happen. I wish I could remember the exact words; maybe I’m not supposed to, and maybe those words don’t matter.

What matters is in that moment, God gave me my focus for this year.

30926_509714406942_4757551_n

Ozark National Forest

I walked to the creek running beneath the bridge we crossed to return to the lodge and looked down. The water shone. Several bright yellow leaves lay in the water below.  Some of the leaves seemed still, and others moved at varying speeds in the water below, some in the current and others on the outskirts. Those leaves were not concerned with the temperature, the wind, the light, or the people around them. They weren’t concerned with the other objects in the water, not even logs or wild animals, because the water was powerful enough to maneuver the leaves around objects, even if it took a little time. They were simply being carried by the water, and they kept moving wherever the water carried them.

I am a leaf. He is the Water.

 

 

Move

The good old college days

The good ole college days

One dark, starry, windy night—not unlike tonight, with temperatures drastically dropping, warning of winter storms approaching—I crouched alongside dozens of my campus ministry friends during the week of final exams as a college student, creating Christmas cards for shut-ins and hospital patients, humming along to familiar Christmas carols. Suddenly That Still Small Voice rang out clear as a bell.

“Go see her in her dorm room right now.”

I kept humming and coloring and designing my card. I also began arguing with That Still Small Voice. It made no sense to stop what I was doing—because what I was doing made perfect sense—to go make an unannounced visit to a fellow student whom I had barely befriended. This particular student knew my name, and we joined the same student organization simultaneously, but in truth, we barely knew one another. To show up at her apartment uninvited seemed not only rude but also a little nuts, quite frankly.

“Go see her right now, I said.”

I felt my heart pounding this time. I capped the Sharpies and stood up, pulling my best friend, Kelly, aside. I felt slightly irresponsible about leaving the card-making party since I helped plan it, but what could I do? When you get The Call, you answer.

“Kelly, I think God just told me to leave and go do something. I have to go.”

She looked at me quizzically but didn’t inquire about the details. Having lived with me for one year at that point, I guess she’d grown to accept that my brand of spirituality was untraditional, at best.

“Okay—is everything okay?”

“Yes. I’ll see you later.” I zipped up my grey wool car coat and headed in the direction of the student’s room, the wind whipping at my back.

When I arrived, I knocked on her door. A scruffy-looking male answered. I immediately attempted to bow out, apologizing and offering to come back another time, but she asked him to leave.

So there I was.

“I don’t know why I’m here. God just told me to come see you.”

And then her tears fell.

And her truth came rushing out in waves. And I listened.

Mostly, I cried. And we hugged one another.

And she told me that she felt she was on the verge of death, and that God must have sent me to her that night.

And ever since, we’ve remained friends, even when we aren’t able to see one another for long periods of time.

A few weeks ago, I reread 1 Samuel 3 in the Bible. It reminded me of my own life, of the many opportunities—just like this one moment in time when I made a choice to listen to That Still Small Voice—to either listen to God or to blow Him off. I wish I could say I’ve always listened, but I haven’t.

It reminded me that each time I’ve chosen to listen and take action—particularly when what I’ve heard from God requires me to take action—I have NEVER regretted it. I am always the beneficiary or witness of some type of miracle.

What if I had kept foolishly, stubbornly, and selfishly coloring Christmas cards that night? Well, I guess a few more shut-ins would have received Christmas cards that year.

But my friend—MY FRIEND—might be dead. Or she might have struggled for a longer period of time, feeling more isolated and alone, knowing that not one person understood or knew about her pain. My faith in That Still Small Voice would not have grown tenfold that night. I would not have shared in her sorrow and later in her joy when God renewed her spirit. I would have missed a miracle. I would have missed out on love.

Let me never refuse to move when That Voice moves me.

God’s big hands

422175_481118075239410_57455172_nWhen I was 10 years old, I met Harmony Culbreath. She brought nothing but sunshine to my life. My mentor defines elevator people as people who lift you up and basement people as people who drag you down; Harmony lifted me up. She was constantly smiling, cracking jokes, and singing with her deep, one-of-a-kind beautiful voice that gave me chills. I’d still rather listen to Harmony’s voice than to anyone else’s voice if I had to choose one person to listen to for the rest of my life.

I remember—and still laugh every time I think about it—a long minivan ride home from Little Rock. I am not sure what the trip entailed, but Harmony had ridden in our family van, along with me and my slew of sisters and parents. On the way home, in the back of the dark van, my sisters and I begged Harmony to sing popular rock songs and hymns to us over and over and over again and were mesmerized by her voice. My mom, on the other hand, eventually became annoyed at the junior high a capella karaoke and finally yelled at us and asked us to shut our traps and play the silent game. We were sorely disappointed. This put an end to Mariah Carey, Wilson Phillips, and the other tunes Harmony belted out for us in perfect pitch.

Harmony never seemed to display fear. If she felt afraid, she didn’t show it. Once, when we went ice skating—which she’d never done before in her life—she attempted a single axel. She actually made it halfway around before the toe of her skate dug into the ice, causing her to fall face forward into the ice. She scraped her face on the ice, creating a fairly nasty gash on her cheekbone. That didn’t deter her for long. She slapped a Band-Aid on the spot and kept on skating. Harmony had guts when it came to playing softball, too. She slid and pushed and shoved and was so aggressive that other girls were often so intimidated by her that she was virtually untouchable on the field.

I remember moments when Harmony shared deeply personal and intimate stories and memories with me regarding personal relationships, first dates, family secrets, and other internal struggles. Harmony was a genuine human being—she had the capacity to be honest and real. This is a trait that many people do not come by easily in today’s world. In some ways, this made her a more vulnerable person, but in other ways, it made her stronger.

1544453_10202971807282635_577239659_nObviously, Harmony was a renaissance woman. If she set her mind to do something, she did it. I think she must have applied this same fierce determination to her career, and it’s probably why she found success singing and performing for years while juggling her full-time job of raising four children. She didn’t half-ass anything in life, including being a mama. Harmony loved her babies, and she loved them well. Anyone who vaguely knew her, even online, could clearly see that Harmony’s focus was on ensuring that her four children knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were loved by her.

You can’t lose someone like Harmony and expect that life is just going to move on. Clichés like “God works everything out for the best” or “There’s a reason for everything” mean nothing right now. In fact, those phrases piss me off in situations like these.

10610566_10205781782930270_3974353586199131000_nAs someone who does believe in God—and I know Harmony shared this faith–I do attempt to work to accept reality and life on life’s terms. The reality is that Harmony is not coming back, and the reality is that her children are without their mother. I have found that what helps me in times like these is to stop focusing on the problem and to focus on the solution. Part of focusing on the solution is to focus on God’s goodness instead.

Okay—so where is God’s goodness in this situation? I asked myself this question the night that I got the news about Harmony’s death. Searching… searching…. Searching… I’ve got nothing.

Today, as I stood outside during my own daughter’s nap, I drank a cup of coffee while the wind whipped through my hair and dried the tears that flowed down my cheeks, the tears that have somewhat steadily flowed down my face like molasses since hearing this news. I began asking myself a myriad of rhetorical questions…. Where are her children? Who is caring for them? Are they crying right now and missing their mama? Who is going to comfort them? Who is rocking them now and singing those sweet songs to them that Harmony used to sing to them? Will they be in safe arms? Will they be fed plenty of food, and when they go to bed at night, will they be in a home that keeps them free from danger of every kind? Are they all together so they can retain some semblance of normalcy since their primary caregiver has been ripped from their lives? God, are you hearing these questions??? ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME RIGHT NOW?

And while those molasses-like tears began picking up their pace, I felt Him respond.

Don’t you think I’m capable of holding all four of them right now? Don’t you believe that I Am their Mother and their Father?

Yes.

So one more time, I’ll choose to trust God. His hands are big enough to hold all four of those precious babies.

2014 gift list

Over seven years ago, I started a painful journey toward becoming myself.

217491_505060962482_4965_nLately I have been contemplating some things I’ve learned since beginning this journey in 2007. So, in truth, my gift list this year is a compilation of lessons I’ve learned over the past seven and a half years but maybe only fully realized within the past year.

I consider these lessons learned to be great gifts I received from mentors in my life who are on the same journey. I get to place my feet in their footsteps, to ask them for help when I stumble, and to humble myself and ask for prayer when my own prayers seem insufficient and when my own faith feels feeble.

I have learned to be honest.

I haven’t always had the capacity to be fully honest with others, not even with God. I tried, rest assured, but I somehow seemed to come up short. As Sara Groves says, “Only the truth and truthfulness can save us.”

My inability to share my secrets kept me sick—really spiritually sick—for years. I was only hurting myself, but I couldn’t even see this realistically. I thought I was protecting people I loved from painful truths, in some cases, and in other situations, I thought I was sheltering the image of Christ or Christianity from being tarnished because of my sins and awful mistakes. The truth is that I was incredibly egotistical and unable to come clean with even myself regarding reality.

Bethany Dana 5 28 14Thankfully, because of the journey I began in 2007 and the mentors who’ve guided me every step of the way, I don’t live this way today. I live an honest life, even in the moments when it’s still hard today. I find people I trust to spill my guts to, and though they are few and far between, I do have people I trust with all of me today. I am who I am, and I make no bones about it, for better or worse. I work every day to keep a clean slate between myself and God, and as my main mentor says, “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It only matters what you and God know.”

I have learned to be faithful and consistent.

This ties in with learning to be honest for me, and this was a hard lesson to learn in multiple areas of my life. Fidelity is a valuable commodity in a fast food world. Until very recently, I didn’t even understand that for many years, I was afraid of being alone, and because of that fear, I replaced people, jobs, and even cities and homes at an alarming pace.

Last year, my self-selected word for the year was “still.” Part of my focus for the year, related to the concept of being still, was to practice spending more time in reflection and meditation with God—ultimately, to wake up earlier and to spend more time in the morning in prayer, meditation, and reading. I reset my alarm for 5 a.m. and began to up my coffee intake. This helped offset the lack of sleep. Becoming more consistent and faithful regarding my time with God led to numerous positive outcomes, too many to write about in one measly paragraph, but one of these is that I began to understand that if I showed up morning after morning, God was always going to be there waiting on me.

During all of the years when I had replaced people, jobs, cities, and homes repeatedly and quickly due to fear of being alone and fear of being unwanted, God had been there all along, waiting and wanting me. As Jennifer Knapp reminds me, “You’re the only One who’s faithful to me.” I know, I know… but I didn’t KNOW.

I hadn’t been willing to slow down long enough to look and listen—not long enough to let it sink in deeply enough to change the patterns of my behavior. Until my personal journey to becoming the real Bethany helped me see the truth about this matter, I just had to keep doing what I was doing for a little while longer.

I have learned that I have more to learn than I have to teach.

Kaleb and Mrs. WallaceI’ve learned this truth in the context of my personal life as a mentor of other women and in the context of my professional life as a college English instructor. This year, I had the privilege to teach approximately 230 students, both in the traditional classroom and online. Sure, I helped them to meet learning objectives, to improve their listening skills, to become better public speakers, to learn to write personal narrative essays, to compose their first research papers in MLA format, and to do all sorts of academic projects in class. I hope I helped them to accomplish much more than that, though.

As Albert Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Having finished my first semester as a full-time instructor, I am thankful that I can say with a clear conscience that I did my absolute best to ensure my students learned well—not just about writing and speaking, but also about living.

I know one thing for certain—I learned at least 230 unique and beautiful lessons in 2014, and I’m grateful for each one of them.

The best part of the journey I’m on to becoming myself is that it has no end. There’s no graduation ceremony, no “I have arrived” moment. I get to keep growing as long as I’m breathing, because as long as I’m breathing, there’s hope.

“His mercies are new every morning—great is His faithfulness.” –Lamentations 3:23

God will

There are some moments in life when I’m able to vividly recall exactly what I was doing at precise moments in time. September 11, 2001. 4:21 p.m., November 16, 2012. The moment when my daughter was born. And 10 a.m., May 12, 2014. The moment when my babysitter Keely called to tell me that she was interested in watching Maggie if I were offered a full-time English faculty position.

Dressing up as Velma for Halloween 2013, just to please my students who INSISTED  :).

Dressing up as Velma for Halloween 2013, just to please my students who INSISTED :).

That moment felt pivotal to me because I’d prayed for God’s will related to every aspect of my employment for almost an entire year. From the moment I heard the news that the community college where I taught as an adjunct English instructor would be hiring a full-time instructor in the coming year, I began praying. I prayed for nothing but God’s will, but I’ll admit that I sometimes resorted to fretting about the details in my mind. I wondered if I stood a fighting chance against other candidates who would apply, knowing that my experience in other workplace settings didn’t amount to much when stacked against years of collegiate teaching experience. I wondered if all of my hard work as an adjunct faculty member would pay off, or if I would find myself teaching one or two courses for the next five years before realizing that my dream of teaching full-time might never materialize. I wondered if I should apply for other full-time positions or go with my gut and stick to what I really had my heart set on—teaching full-time at the community college I’d grown to love and wanted to retire from someday. And lastly, but probably most important of all, I wondered if God would provide caring, qualified babysitters to come to our home. I’d worked in daycare settings as a college student, and daycare was a last resort for us.

I began to pray “God’s will” and “God, open the right doors and close the wrong ones” every single day about my dream of teaching full-time, even before the job had been posted and long before other people on campus started talking about it. Slowly but surely, God answered my prayers and provided bits of confirmation through words other faculty members said to me, emails and gifts and notes from my students, student evaluation forms, and staff members who encouraged me in true Barnabas fashion.

When I interviewed for the position, I felt complete peace throughout the process. Some of my friends commented and asked me about my demeanor, questioning whether I was excited or not.

“I’m excited, but I’m not sure if I’ll be the person who gets the job. I’m just waiting to see what happens. I’ve just been praying for God’s will, so we’ll see.”

Walking with Maggie on campus last fall

Walking with Maggie on campus last fall

I really meant what I said. In truth, I probably would have cried if I’d not been selected; I wasn’t just applying for a job. I was applying for the opportunity to fulfill a personal dream and to share my passion for learning and literature and writing with students for years to come. By the same token, I trust God’s timing, and I don’t want anything that isn’t supposed to be mine anymore.

But on May 12 at 10 a.m., Keely called and told me she wanted to babysit for me. A weight lifted after she hung up the phone, knowing that if I got my dream job, my baby would be in good hands, too.

One hour later, my boss, the division chair for the arts and humanities division, called me.

She told me I had landed the job. I might have squealed.

I don’t remember 95% of what she said on the phone that day because after she said, “Bethany, I’m not sure if you realize it, but your students really love you,” I started crying silently.

I couldn’t hear anything else. I hope it wasn’t anything that she hasn’t repeated since then.

God knew that I needed my babysitter to call me that day before I got that second phone call. My mentor always tells me that God goes ahead and plans in love. I know that’s what He did for me that morning.

I certainly don’t want anything that isn’t supposed to be mine anymore. But I am so thankful for what is mine today.

The only five-leaf clover I've ever found. I found it three days before I got my job. This picture will soon hang in my office :).

The only five-leaf clover I’ve ever found. I found it three days before I got my job. This picture will soon hang in my office :).

Last week, I went to work in my office on campus even though I am not required to work on campus this summer. It helps me to focus and accomplish a little more since my beautiful toddler can be a little loud and difficult to work around at home. After sitting at my desk and grading speeches for my online summer course, I rubbed my eyes and decided to go to lunch.

While walking down the hall, I caught a glimpse at my own reflection in the window of an office door. Seeing myself, I smiled and instantly felt gratitude wash over me.

This is my life, I thought. Wow. Let me never take this for granted.

God, thank You
for all that You’ve given me
for all that You’ve taken away
and for all that You’ve left me with.

 

No fireworks

On the most memorable Independence Day of my life, there were no fireworks.

DSCN2680Well, that’s not entirely true. I remember glancing across the horizon, over hills and pastures in the Oklahoma prairie, and seeing traces of a firework show in the distance as tears and sweat mingled on my cheeks. I stood alone in a field on an American Indian Reservation, having spent the day helping my fellow volunteers nail shingles and paint rails and complete other tasks to help a growing congregation build a new place of worship.

I was a total phony. I’d been raised in church all my life. I memorized the books of the Bible at age six and had the bookmark to prove it. I led prayers and events for my youth group regularly, but all of the Scriptural knowledge I’d acquired had mostly remained stuck in my head; the bulk of it had not made its way into my heart.

When my life took a tragic turn, I didn’t know how to marry my religious beliefs with reality. I smoked pot, wrote in my journals, and listened to sad, pathetic music instead. This got me through the roughest year of my life, but it didn’t bring me true peace. So on Independence Day, after the longest and most painful and loneliest year of my life, I stood alone in that field, and said the most desperate prayer of my life.

“God, if you can give me real peace, please do it.”

???????????????????????????????And He did. He didn’t need to display Himself with any fancy colors, loud kabooms, or expensive displays. He just moved all of those meaningless words that were stuck in my head down the ladder of abstraction deep into my soul in one fell swoop.

They settled there heavily. I felt full. I felt peace.

That’s a freedom that I’ll carry with me forever.