Living in reality

“I have a dream…” Martin Luther King, Jr., once coined those infamous words, and more importantly, the great notion that one day in America we’ll all experience true freedom. Most people who take the time to listen to this speech skim past the first part of it (which calls us all to responsibility and is less often quoted). Yet in it are spoken some of the truest words: “their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

Last July, about two weeks before the riots in Ferguson sparked racial tension and civil unrest across the United States, we took our darling daughter shoe shopping at Payless. She’s still young enough to find pleasure in a small store full of cheap, plastic sandals. And I’m too much of a tightwad to care if she’s wearing anything better, so it works out well.

July 2015 Payless 1She spent at least 20 minutes selecting a pair of sandals and a pair of tennis shoes, and then the bell on the door, indicating customers had entered, suddenly got Maggie’s attention. She ran to the front of the store to find a new friend. Any girl within a few years of her age range becomes her friend instantly, of course, but for some reason she was even more drawn to this girl, and it took my breath away.

You see, we live in a small, rural town in the Ozarks. Maggie had never played with a girl with skin of a different color, really, but she was totally oblivious–or seemed to be–and it brought me to tears. I watched them play and couldn’t help but take a few pictures.

It reminded me immediately of my friend Mazie, who I loved to pieces throughout high school (and still do to this day). We tried out together for a statewide dance team and often made the three-hour drive together to practice. Mazie and several of my other friends on that dance team were my only black friends because at my high school, there were no black students at all aside from one male student who only stayed for one semester (and was treated like a total celebrity during his tenure). I didn’t know anything about discrimination or prejudice or any of those things. No one taught me about it, and I guess I didn’t hang around people who talked about it either. I was very naive. I honestly liked everyone for who they were as people, and I felt confused the first time a black boy in high school accused me of befriending him to make someone jealous.

Life got complicated as I got older. I heard more nasty comments from people who’d been down harder roads. I saw hateful looks in people’s eyes, people from all walks of life and with all colors of skin. I’m certainly no longer naive about discrimination. I watch the news and sadly, I’m completely aware of the hate crimes committed recently. It’s gut-wrenching to watch our nation ripping itself apart from resentment and retaliation.

But I have to tell you this.

July 2015 PaylessI’m still just like my daughter.

King’s dream is embedded in my reality, and I won’t apologize for that.

I just love people for who they are, and you’re likely to see my wallowing around in the floor of Payless if I run into Mazie while I’m buying sandals.

 

 

 

 

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.

2013 word of the year

ImageIn 2011, I was inspired by my friend Denise Felton to select a word of the year. In 2011, my word was “freedom.” I knew freedom was a goal–I didn’t know that God had gone ahead, planned in love, and laid plans to free me from incredibly heavy chains of the past, enabling me to truly enjoy the love of my life and to later experience sweet reconciliation and redemption related to my deepest, darkest secret.

In two short years, I found freedom from my past, freedom to live in the present, freedom to love and trust, and freedom to dare to dream about the future.

This year, another friend of mine who was inspired by my “word of the year” journey toward freedom decided to select a word of the year herself. Call it peer pressure, but knowing that she’s already receiving blessings and insights related to the word she selected for 2013 really motivated me to start contemplating my own word for 2013.

Choosing a word of the year might be a random, quick process for some people. For me, it takes time. It’s simple–I pray and ask God to make it very clear to me which word to focus on–but it takes time. Yesterday, I prayed that God would reveal the word to me and that He’d make it clearer than usual because my brain lacks the ability to perform its typical functions lately due to lack of sleep (as a result of adjusting to life with my beautiful infant daughter).

“Lord,” I prayed, “I’d like to know if there’s a word you want to give me this year, something to focus on. But You might have to stick it right in front of my face, or I may miss it.”

ImageAfter finishing my prayer while sitting at my desk, attempting to alert myself with a cup of coffee, I opened my eyes and saw my word stuck right in front of my face. Literally.

A few years ago, I attended a conference for women in particular 12-step recovery programs. At the conference, we participated in a group meditation called a “whisper walk.” I’d participated in whisper walks a few times before, and each time, the phrases given to me to recite were precise messages from God that pierced my heart (and always produced tears, of course). One of the messages from the whisper walk was tacked to my bulletin board directly in front of my laptop.

“God’s light shines through you.”

Light.

A proverbial electrical switch flipped and illuminated my mind (perhaps the coffee kicked in at that exact moment as well). Of course, light.

My daughter was born in November. As we duked it out over the name selection process, we finally agreed to select two family names since we both prefer traditional names and wanted to honor our families as well. Our daughter’s first name, Margaret, means “daughter of light.”

ImageAs I spent many hours sitting, praying, and reading due to excessive swelling during pregnancy, I rediscovered a verse which I dubbed “Maggie’s verse,” Isaiah 60:1. Many years ago, when I was in my early 20’s, I spent a weekend at a women’s retreat for my local church. One of the women, who happened to be my accountability partner at the time, woke me up Saturday morning by whispering the most gentle, wonderful words to me:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come. And the glory of the Lord rises upon you.”

Ahhh. I remember turning my grumpy, typical morning frown upward and thinking, “Now that’s a great way to wake up in the morning.”

Each morning, since my daughter came home from the hospital, I have whispered those wonderful words to her as I gently rouse her. I sing the words to her in a made-up song multiple times a day.

Yesterday, after settling on “light” as my word of the year, I attached a leash to my overjoyed beagle and hiked into the woods behind our home. As my boots carried me down the well-worn paths I’ve walked many times before, the sunlight penetrated my body and warmed me. I began to realize that the word “light” was not just for my daughter; it is for me, too. God wants to be a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Psalm 119:105). He is willing to be my light and my salvation, giving me no reason to fear the darkness (Psalm 27:1). He has broken the chains of my past that kept me focused on dark shadows, and He invited me out of the spiritual cave I dwelt in, revealing a lighter world. He repeatedly reminds me that if I focus on the problem, it increases, yet if I focus on the solution, it increases.

This year, may I close my eyes to the darkness, look to the Light, and see more clearly than ever before.

 

Getting it

This morning, as I read through 1 Chronicles, I came across a passage I’ve read and studied multiple times before, outlining the story of the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Some of the details I remembered were missing from the 1 Chronicles version, so I flipped back to 2 Samuel to check out the other version.

“So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing . . . David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might . . .  As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michael daughter of Saul (David’s wife) watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.”  –2 Samuel 6:12-16

Why?

I’ve never understood why Michal hated David for dancing before the Lord. Bringing back the ark was a huge spiritual success for David and the Israelites. Everyone with David was singing, shouting, and dancing. And as his wife, wouldn’t she want to share in his joy rather than turn up her nose at it?

Apparently not. My Bible’s footnotes explain that “Michal had no appreciation for the significance of the event and deeply resented David’s public display as unworthy of the dignity of a king.”

The bottom line: she just didn’t get it.

As I contemplated these verses over a cup of coffee and chocolate buttermilk pie, memories of times in my life when those around me “just didn’t get it” trickled in.

Striking a pose, 2009

I remembered attending three different churches over the course of a decade and going to ministry fairs hosted by each church. Each time, the churches sponsored a booth with a suggestion box and encouraged members to write down their specific spiritual gifts and talents if they hadn’t found a group, committee, or activity that seemed like a good fit. Each time, I wrote down, “I love to dance, and I feel it’s a gift God’s given me. I’d love to use that gift in some way.”

Crickets.

I never got a single response to that request. Dancing in a traditional, often Fundamentalist denomination, wasn’t really considered acceptable. Maybe to some, it would be considered “public display unworthy of the dignity of a Christian,” to paraphrase my Bible’s footnotes on Michal’s perspective on David’s dancing.

China, 2005

I recalled another moment in a church service, in one of these same churches, when the hymn Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus began playing. I had just returned from China and had felt the heavy spiritual oppression surrounding me for three weeks. I’d come to value freedom of expression in a way I’d never valued it before. It seemed only natural to physically stand in reverence to God now that I had the option to do so.

The minute I stood up, in the middle of several rows of pews, I believe colossal drops of sweat began to drip from the music minister’s face. I received multiple stares, and if my memory serves me correctly, the folks’ faces weren’t exactly reflecting support, encouragement, or brotherly love. Apparently I’d rocked the boat a little too much that morning and missed the memo outlining specific “don’t stand up during the Stand Up for Jesus song” instructions.

I recollected a time when I read a book about a native Indian man who proposed that if Americans truly want to assist in spreading God’s word to other people, their money may be better spent supporting native missionaries rather than foreign missionaries since native missionaries require much less financial backing; they’re already used to living in poverty-stricken places and can get by on much less. This book moved me and opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about things. I shared the book with my then-boyfriend. He read it, and when I asked him what he thought of it, he said, “I thought it was cute.”

Cute? A book about changing the world? His response brought tears to my eyes.

I reminisced about moments when I’d felt compelled to make choices based on my beliefs. I’ve walked away from movies and television shows, leaving friends confused over why I’d be offended at the content. I’ve tried to explain to people why I’m moved to tears over others’ addictions holding them back from the Light. I’ve given money and items to people–some whose names I don’t even know–when spurred by a strong, quiet voice instructing me to do so. I’ve visited and called and emailed friends to express my concern over something God revealed to me about their lives or current situations–each time, I really knew nothing about what was really going on; God just kept telling me to say something to them. So I did.

Acting on my spiritual gut feels pretty ridiculous sometimes. It’s often not dignified. It may involve making incredibly unpopular choices. It incites disgust, anger, and confusion.

But I can’t stop doing it.

I can’t stop dancing before the Lord with all my might when I know that’s exactly what He wants.

And I won’t worry about the Michals of the world who, sadly, may never get it.

2011 gift list

When I started blogging a few years ago, one of my first posts was published on Christmas Eve. Sniffling and wheezing with the flu while nursing my depression over separating from my ex-husband on December 23rd, I felt quite pitiful.

I’ve learned from wise souls that the best remedy for self-pity is gratitude. I decided to compose a list of gifts I’d received that year and post it on my blog. It helped me to see things that seemed so negative in a much more positive light, at least temporarily.

This Christmas season, I’m not going through a divorce, and I don’t have the flu (knock on wood!). In fact, 2011 has probably been the best year of my life in some ways. Nevertheless, in the spirit of the season of giving and receiving, I decided I’d share some of the gifts I’ve received this year with all of you.

  • The gift of education. After I’d worked part-time for about a month, I started toying with the idea of graduate school again. This wasn’t a new dream or fantasy of mine. I love learning, and given unlimited funds and time, I could easily become a career student. Given that I have unlimited funds, limited time, and financial responsibilities, I’d pushed aside the idea of higher education for years. One morning over coffee, I mentioned to James how much I’d love to take some graduate classes in English. “Well then why don’t you?”  Well, I don’t know, I thought. His encouragement motivated me to peruse programs, find one that worked for me, and go through the application process. A perceptive person once told me that when trying to make a big decision, it helped her to pray, “God, open the right doors and close the wrong ones.” I prayed that prayer daily while going through the application process, and He just kept opening doors for me. Right now, I’m awaiting the arrival of my books for my first three classes.
  • The gift of learning. Call us nerds, but at our home, we really love the history channel, the documentary channel, Jeopardy, and crossword puzzles. By watching more educational television and less train wreck television (such as Flavor Flav’s fabulous shows), I’ve gained the gift of enlightenment. I’ve also started taking suggestions about what to read or what to research from friends of mine and people I admire. Rather than “put it on the list,” I’ve just done it. And I’m glad I have. By being a little more open-minded about how to spend my time, I’ve learned about things I knew nothing about last year, and I’ve learned that I enjoy things I thought I would abhor.
  • The gift of time. In September, I got a new job at a community college. I was ecstatic about returning to the world of higher education, but I was also elated about the part-time nature of the position. I’ve had a job since I was 14 years old, and at times, I’ve been a bit of a perfectionist and workaholic. Now I’ve been given the gift of time. I can work part-time and not feel bad about it because I’m with someone who supports me and makes sacrifices to make that possible.
  • The gift of relaxation. Having functioned for so long while riddled with anxiety and stress, it’s taken me time to learn how to relax and give myself permission to do so. Learning how to enjoy what I’m doing while I’m doing it has been a process, and I’m still figuring it out, but I feel like I’ve made leaps and bounds this year. Being able to snort-laugh while watching an animated movie or just cuddle my dogs for 15 solid minutes without feeling antsy about moving on to another task is a gift.
  • The gift of trust. In February 2010, I got my second tattoo, the Chinese symbol for “trust” on my left wrist. At the time, it symbolized the importance of the role of trust in relationships, but it was also an extended index finger to all those people who’d betrayed me throughout life and had proven themselves untrustworthy. Since then, I’ve realized how very little I really trust anyone, including God, and that angry finger has fallen. Through the counsel of a wise mentor and the prodding of God during my quiet reading, prayer, and meditation time each morning, my eyes have been opened to my severe lack of trust. In almost all situations, when things have gone wrong, I have chosen not to trust God and to trust myself instead, and my failure to trust God has separated me from Him time after time. Thankfully, I’ve determined to continue to do my part to get closer to truly trusting both God and others. I have in no way arrived, but I’m on the right path.
  • The gift of freedom. Finally, this year, I have gained freedom. I chose “freedom” as my word of the year for 2011, and whether through self-fulfilling prophecy or divine fate, I’ve certainly found it. I’ve gained freedom from the past, freedom to live in today, and freedom to dream about the future rather than dread it. This year, I realized that I could have been living this way ever since unlocking my heart to my Creator many years ago. I just hadn’t let myself open the door until now. What a gift it is to step outside.

Worth the price

Some of you may recall my blog post about selecting a “word of the year” in lieu of conjuring up a New Year’s resolution or specific goal for 2011. I chose freedom.

Freedom is something I’ve struggled with my whole life–both allowing the freedom of others and of myself, too. Through a combination of circumstances, traumatic experiences, and lessons learned by observation, I unfortunately came to the conclusion that gaining control was the best possible choice. It kept me in check. It kept me safe. It kept me comfortable. At the least, it gave me the illusion of these things, and that worked for me for a while.

I’ll admit it–I’m a recovering control freak. Tried to force people to change? Check. Attempted to make people love me? Check. Forced myself to hide feelings (even from myself) in order to appear “just fine?” Check. Worked long hours and poured myself into jobs in order to perfectly execute my plans for success? Check. Beat myself up for mistakes and failures rather than focusing on the present moment (something I have the power to change, versus the past)? Check.

When it comes to control, I’ve been there, done it. All of it. And slowly but surely, I am letting go and letting God and realizing that when I do, I feel more free than before.

This year, I read a book called “Boundaries in Marriage” by Cloud and Townsend. I decided that if I want a healthy relationship, I needed to analyze my part in my past fumbles and focus on self-growth to prevent similar slips. The book reiterated things I’d already dealt with emotionally and spiritually–it didn’t really cover much new ground because I have forced myself to look in the mirror over the past four years and take a good hard look at Bethany, for better or worse. I’ve worked through the worse and moved toward the better slowly but surely.

As a former control freak, though, I really spent some time considering the concept set forth in the book regarding the collaboration of love, freedom, and responsibility.

“Finally, it is all about love. As Jesus has told us, the two greatest commandments hang on the ultimate reality of Love. And this is the biggest misunderstanding that we find when talking about Boundaries. Many people think that boundaries are about selfishness and are at their root, self-serving. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Boundaries are about freedom, and freedom is always meant to have as its ultimate fruit, love. As Paul says, and we would echo to anyone who uses boundaries in a self-serving way, You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature ; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:13,14)   Boundaries are about God’s restoring freedom to you and me so that we could take control of our lives to be able to love Him and others. Ultimately, that is the fruit of boundaries, to love our of freedom, and with purpose.” –Cloud and Townsend,  http://www.cloudtownsend.com/library/articles/7articles6.php.

Being in a relationship with someone I trust, and who trusts me, has helped me learn to let go of my need for control. I don’t need to control him because he is responsible and controls himself, and I control myself. We are both responsible to God, and to each other, and because we behave responsibly and respect each other’s boundaries, we give each other the freedom to live life fully, completely, and joyfully. And feeling free causes us to feel more in love with each other every day. So we, in turn, continue acting responsibly in our relationship because of our love for each other.

It’s a beautiful cycle, and it’s set me free. I’ve heard it said that freedom’s never really free–someone pays the price. If I hadn’t sacrificed tears, prayers, and hard work, I’d be right where I used to be–in a cramped cage, feeling (but not being) very safe and in control. If I hadn’t been in that cage for so long, I might not appreciate the feeling of flying.

Word of the year

Instead of a New Year’s resolution, my friend Denise posted a “word of the year,” or a theme of the year. I “liked” this idea in her status on Facebook about 2 months ago, and at the time, I began mulling over what my own word of the year might be. A few weeks later I decided upon the word, but several cups of coffee, quiet drives, and moments of prayer and meditation later, I finally decided to write about it.

Most of my life, I’ve felt very contained inside. I believe Dave Matthews said it well in his song “Grey Street:”

“And she thinks . . . hey,
how did I come to this?
I dreamed myself a thousand times around the world
but I can’t get out of this place.
There’s an emptiness inside her,
and she’d do anything to fill it in
but all the colors mix together
to grey, and it breaks her heart.”

Once James told me that more than anything, he wanted me to be free.

When he told me that, it made me cry. I thought it was the sweetest, most romantic, and most unrealistic wish someone could wish for me in the entire world. I’d wished it for myself and aimed for it myself and even WORKED for it myself for the past few years but really hadn’t felt it–not really. The past few months I’ve had more and more moments of feeling free from my old self. Unrestricted. Clear of obstacles and unimpeded by the old things that I used to feel tied down by and tied to. I’ve felt more and more able to act without restraint and reserve and have fun again. I’ve found myself wanting to give more freely and generously and loving James and other around me with a kind of love that I thought had died in me permanently.

In the World English Dictionary, it refers to “free” in terms of “free jazz” and says this:

“of jazz–totally improvised, with no preset melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic basis.”

That definition would have scared the pants off me a year ago. No set in stone guideline? No plan? Oh my gosh. I can’t do that.

The idea of living an improvised, free-flowing life now sounds pretty sweet.

This year, I’ll be free.