The generosity of letting go: Dana paramita

This morning my dear friend, Heather texted a photo from a book she’s reading about the intersection of Buddhism and Christianity. In it, she found the term ‘dana’ which is the word for the Buddhist pillar of generosity. My imagination piqued, I did a bit more research: Dana is a Sanskrit and Pali term meaning “generosity” or “giving”. In Buddhism, it also refers to the practice of cultivating generosity. Ultimately, the practice culminates in one of the Perfections (paramitas): the Perfection of Giving (dana paramita). This is characterized by unattached and unconditional generosity, giving and letting go.

I love Heather for her gift of thoughtfulness. (I love her for more reasons than this, but they are too many to list here).  She frequently sends little notes or texts or postcards when she encounters something that reminds her of me. She does this with all her friends, but knowing this makes it no less special when she does it for me. Every time she does, it’s nearly as good as a face-to-face hug. Nearly. Not quite, though.

Heather is also special to me because she and I stumble through this whole deconstruction thing together. We share questions and scars; we wondering pastor’s wives. Never quite fitting in anywhere, we lean on each other from time to time. It’s important to have people like this. They help you feel less alone.

Remember earlier this week, when I shared about a podcast that had me running and crying? Since listening to it, three other friends have brought it to my attention. ‘Have you listened? it sounds like you. That could be you.’ I felt this when I heard it, but it’s affirming to hear others say it as well. I hope to one day be as wise and generous as the woman who shared her story.  She, too, helps me know I am not alone.

In the podcast, she speaks of looking forward rather than getting trapped by looking back (she even mentions Lot’s wife in her story.) She, like me, is a questioner, a closet mystic, a system skeptic. We share a kind of grief for the system we relied on which fell apart when we looked too closely. What was supposed to be secure and welcoming instead became a weapon used to beat us into submission. Conform or leave were our only choices.

So we left. We all three left.

I can only speak for myself about moving forward, but, until now, I haven’t done it very well. I’ve clung to how things should be, or how I should be. I’ve blamed and avoided and tried to make myself disappear. Moving forward seems so difficult when everything you’ve ever been told screams, run back to what you know!

Known equals safety. Unknown is dangerous; the slippery slope looms.

I stalled, stagnated, looked back. For too long. I hurt myself more than I’d already experienced and damaged those around me with my sharp edges and bitterness. I regret that now, but I cannot change it. The only thing to do is make amends and move forward, into the mystic as the song goes.

Which brings us back around to generosity, the dana paramita. One of the most amazing gifts of this hundred day journey is finding permission within myself to move ahead. Unlocking this generosity towards myself empowers me to release it to everyone, to release the institutions and people which have caused me such harm. Not only to let go and look forward, but to feel generous benevolence for who they are and what they do. Perhaps that path isn’t for me anymore, but it’s not a bad path. For many, it’s a path towards healing and belonging as it one time was for me. The time I spent there wasn’t wasted, only limited.

So now I move ahead. Because it’s okay. Because everything belongs. My path doesn’t depend on norms someone else designates. There’s room for all our paths in this vast and beautiful universe, “Sometimes the moment at which it appears to the system that you have most checked out, you actually might be checked in more than ever before.”

That’s me. Checked in. Letting go. Practicing dana for myself and everyone else (most of the time – I AM a work in progress). Maybe my companions have changed from who they used to be, but I am not alone.

How to get it done (aka sanity for shopping days)

If you showed up for wisdom today, it’s not happening. I spent the morning at Wal-mart, friends. Wal-mart. I only go to Walmart about once every other month because I loathe it so. The sheer volume of consumerism, the crowded aisles, the checkout nightmares, the entire shopping experience is absolutely exhausting. But my daughters had needs and gift cards, and we live in a town with 3 stores…we hit two of them. So off we went because sometimes you just do the thing.

I have a history of being a terrible procrastinator. I can let a thing go for a ridiculous amount of time simply by walking right by it and pretending it doesn’t exist. Or I use busyness. I know what’s urgent, but shouldn’t I fold the laundry instead? Or water the plants? No really, I can have the cleanest bathroom in the world and still be scrambling to meet a deadline.

But lately I’ve imposed some rules on myself.

If a thing can be done in 3 minutes or less, I do it right now. The moment I think of it (unless I am meditating, then I pin it to my mental cork board. What? It works.)

If a thing can be done in under fifteen minutes, it goes on the daily post it. The daily post it helps me keep track of things without having to rely on my questionable memory. It lives in my planner. I don’t have to finish everything on the daily post it every day. By writing it down, my chances of finishing it in the next 48 hours increase draamtically.

If a thing will take longer than 15 minutes it goes in the future tasks list in my planner. I use this list when I find myself with a bit of extra time that I won’t use for reading or when I make my…

Daily top three list in my planner. I am a big fan of bullet journal, but for my birthday I received this amazing planner. It doesn’t quite have the freedom of a bullet journal, but it pleases my inner perfectionist so. It’s been an easy shift, and I do love it. Also, each day comes with a little Top Three checklist. And well… my little soul loves nothing more than checking a thing off. Nothing.

None of these things make a shopping day more pleasant for me. It’s just not something I love to do. But all of them work together teaching me that sometimes though only way to get through a thing is to just jump in and do it. Even though it wasn’t the case today, usually the mental anguish of procrastinating is far worse than the actual experience.

Those who Journey with me: Voices in my Head Pt 2

Yesterday I wrote about finding the courage to tell my story, and why telling our stories matters.  I’ve been writing about the three boxes: order>disorder>reorder.  Until now, my journey through the box of disorder has been like my dirty little secret.  I don’t often talk about publicly about this because it makes people uncomfortable, or it looks bad, or it’s not what’s expected from someone in my position. Honestly, much of the pressure to not talk is internal. I struggle with a high level fear of rejection, for obvious reasons, but as I said, that’s not the narrative I’m accepting anymore.

Church is a funny sort of creature, both the theological construct and the various local tribes. In order to belong, we have to believe and practice certain things. Over time these things become sacred, unquestionable. They are the way things are, the markers which come to identify who is in the tribe, and who is not in the tribe.  When we start to question these markers, the push-back can be both cruel and severe. Or sometimes it’s more subtle, a quiet and gentle withdrawal, a dismissal delivered congenially behind closed doors. Whatever the method, it hurts, deeply. I’ve seen it happen in multiple ways in my own life and watched it happen publicly and terribly to others.

Which is why I kept my own counsel, mostly.  Fortunately, I’m a reader, so I relied on what came most naturally to me to find support. I went to books. Books turned to podcasts. I found a few lovely, courageous people who were also deconstructing, who could sit with the questions I asked, and who honored me by sharing their own. I may most often wish to be a hermit, but this process of deconstruction is nearly unbearable without some form of community. 

Today I want to share a few voices that have meant the most to me over these last few years. Perhaps you need them too, or maybe you will one day.  

7: an Experimental Mutiny against Excess by Jen Hatmaker and Beauty will Save the world by Brian Zahnd.  I credit these two books as the ones that started it all. Or perhaps it’s better to call them the books which finally gave permission for me to explore a different way of faith.  They gave voice to what had already begun to stir in my soul. They are spiritual catalysts.  Brian Zahnd went on to publish Water to Wine last year, a semi-autobiographical account of his own disorder/reorder journey, which I devoured in two days.

Faith Shift by Kathy Escobar.  This is the book which helped me believe I was not crazy.  All the emotional wreckage I was sorting through, I found in this book. I read story after story of those who also survived the journey. I learned how they did, and that no two journeys are exactly the same. Faith became mysterious, organic and impossible to predict. I learned there are paths for those of us who leave The Path too.

Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty and The Bible Tells Me So.  I read the Bible Tells me so before I read Sin of Certainty, mainly because the second book wasn’t published yet. When I recommend them to others, I advise reading them the other way around though.  The Sin of Certainty is another journey of disorder story, encompassing faith from many aspects and embracing the idea of mystery, questions and the unknowable. The Bible Tells Me So deals specifically with scripture, introducing alternate perceptions and various accepted theological understandings.  For those of us who have learned there is only one way to look at scripture, this is a doorway to a whole new world, inhabited by more than just heretics and fringe lunatics.

Brian McLaren – A New Kind of Christian and A Generous Orthodoxy.  One thing I appreciate about these new-to-me authors and their stories is their overarching willingness to say, this is what I think, but I might be wrong. I’ve never lived in a spiritual space where the possibility of being wrong was tolerable. Being right has always been very, very important. But Brian’s is a voice willing to speculate, to have a conversation. He makes room.  It’s feels not only refreshing and lovely, but welcoming and safe.

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans and Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey. I could write for days and days the way these two brave, beautiful souls have ministered to me through their words and witness. I desperately needed women of faith who’d been on this journey too. Their pain and their passion mirrored my own; their desperation to know God in a way they hadn’t previously even known was possible, made it possible for me as well. Because they shared their story, I believed I, too, could reconstruct a living faith eventually.

There are others, many others, voices I am just discovering or ones that would take me down rabbit trails to a dozen other titles and voices if I listed even one more. 

I want to finish by listing a few podcasts which have also helped my sanity tremendously.

Rob Bell, the Robcast – Far and away the voice I have relied on most heavily in the podcast world.

The Liturgists – generally topical, this podcast provides the voices of several folks as well as guest speakers.

The Deconstructionists – A great podcast for those who are deconstructing, but who also want to connect and reconstruct in new and exciting ways.

Brian Zahnd – As the voice who started all of this, I seldom miss his weekly sermon. When I need a reminder to inhabit the Kingdom and reject the empire, Brian delivers.

Greg Boyd – Greg is new to my list of voices. I hear his books would probably also make my booklist above, but so far I have only enjoyed his podcast. Challenging, engaging and relevant. He’s currently at the top of my list.

The Box of Disorder: How I survived when I burned it all down

A few weeks ago, before I lost my brain to whole 30 and fourteen unexpected schedule crises, I wrote a bit about the three boxes: order< disorder< reorder. I learned about these boxes from Richard Rohr. Whether or not he originated the thought, I don’t know. I’m just glad I heard him speak of them. You can read about order here and disorder here. But I want to take a bit longer and talk about my own disorder story.

I believe everyone’s journey is unique; we don’t all walk the same path even when we are headed in the same direction. But I also know there is power in “me too”, and it’s very important for those of us on the disorder journey to hear this, because it can be an extremely lonely time.

I wrote earlier that sometimes the disorder starts with a simple question, and so it did with me. Back when I used to love to study scripture – a feeling it’s hard for me to remember now; the Bible and I approach each other gently now, like lovers who said too many horrible things in a fight and haven’t fully recovered – I read something which contradicted everything I’d been taught about Jewish people. Namely, they missed the boat in Jesus and so were lost to salvation. But what I was reading, didn’t support this idea at all.

Excited by my ‘discovery,’ I began to share with others. Their response is what you probably expect.

No. You’re wrong. God doesn’t work like that.

Their utter refusal to even entertain these, to me, exciting and beautiful revelations left me feeling diminished. Their tone when they rebuked me left me feeling ashamed. Questions open the doors to dangerous ideas; we sure don’t want to go down any slippery slopes.

Except I did.

I could write for days and weeks if I enumerated all the reasons the cracks in my iron-clad theology grew, personal relationships became strained and snapped. The dissonance in the doctrine I knew and what I was actually finding in scripture was too loud. I knew too much of what happens behind closed doors in churches (hint: people I placed unfairly on pedestals acting altogether human). All these things contributed their weight.  I struggled, floundered and pushed back.

Then we were kicked out of church.

I know now, after years of struggling with this huge, suffocating burden, that pushing back against the system was only part of the reason for our eviction. Ego, dysfunction, resentment and jealousy took part in the decision. I was not innocent of some of the uglier motives, but I no longer believe I deserved what I got. For years, I carried the weight of responsibility for this eviscerating event. When I took it upon myself, I also decided I would be the one to fix it and prevent it from ever happening again.

Obviously, the way to prevent pain was to be the best little evangelical pastor wife I could be. You can’t evict perfection, right?

I threw myself into my wifely position at our new church home attending all the services, promoting all the programs, keeping the nursery. I crossed all the t’s, dotted all the i’s and made countless covered dishes. The box of order was my security blanket, the thing that would keep me from ever being hurt again.

Except I kept getting hurt. Human relationships are messy; we can’t avoid hurt in this world unless we remove ourselves to a desert cave. Even then, we may still end up wounded. My wounds only added to the internal pressure I felt from denying all my questions and struggles from before. I couldn’t continue to embrace things I knew weren’t the final Truth and remain true to myself. If I embraced these dissonant doctrines, I was going to lose core pieces of my self entirely, and I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t.

The breakdown was not a lovely time. At all.

It was messy and painful. I ached and wept and railed in fury, isolated and shut down. I wounded people with sharp edges and anger. Honestly, I’m lucky to have anyone still withe me, who knew me before. I lost many along the way. Fortunately, despite all my fear of intimacy and strangers, I knew I needed professional help.  I spent many hours in the office of a therapist, a beautiful, open-minded soul who made space for my disaster and told me again and again and again that there was room in God’s love for even this.

That message, apart from religion or expectations or appearances or all the other things I hated about myself and everything else….Just God and space and LOVE…is the one thing I held, pressed right up against my heart, tight, tight, tight, tight.

Then I razed the rest.

Once I knew, really knew, God’s love held room for my disaster, I wanted nothing else. I wanted to rebuild my self piece by piece: likes, dislikes, theology, philosophy, relationships, dreams, hopes, all of it. Everything. Nothing was sacred, not even the sacred.

But first, I sat in the ashes. I mourned. I wept. God made space for it and me even as I railed against Him for my own decision. I cursed Him for my lonliness. I turned away from Him in my disappointment. But even in this, I found space. I found love.  Companions sat with me in the ashes, wisely speaking no platitudes, correction or rebuke. Simply bearing witness to the death of so many things.

Not everyone experiences disorder on this scale, but some do. I foolishly built my identity on something which couldn’t last, so when the time for disorder came, as it does for all of us, most of my identity disintegrated with it.

But there’s hope. Always hope. While we are still in the box of disorder hope does not leave us. In fact, it builds the bridge to the box of reorder, which is where we are going next.

My Moving Obsession: Thoughts on changes big and slow

I’ve talked about my obsession with moving before. I’m restless and ready for change. Sometimes the quickest way to change is your environment rather than the slower, less noticeable changes which happen internally. Fortunately, both have their place.
We’ve lived in four different houses in our time in Georgia, each one a little smaller than the one before. When we moved from Florida we packed for weeks, used the largest U-haul you can rent and still needed an extra truck and trailer. Even then, knowing what I know now, I think we owned less than the average American household.
We lived in our first house for two years side-by-side with boxes we never bothered to unpack. Crazy right?  Before we moved into our second house, we looked at a small house located on property our church owns.  It seemed like such a good idea, but the house…as we walked around it, all I could think was, our stuff will never fit. There’s nowhere for our stuff. Eventually, we moved elsewhere.
Moving a second time encouraged me to dispose of a few boxes we had never unpacked, but most of our stuff just moved right along with us.   While living in our second home, two things happened. First, although there was a large master bedroom on the bedroom end of the house, there was also a much smaller bedroom and bath on the opposite end away from the cluster of kid bedrooms. It was tiny but connected to a gorgeous sunroom and offered opposite-side-of-the-house privacy.
Oh yeah.
Then, I joined a thirty day writing challenge. I wrote about organization, because who doesn’t want to be more organized? I bought into the idea that organization was the answer to creating a more meaningful life. If I can make room for everything, I can have it all. True to my nature, I began reading books about organization and prioritization.  Randomly, I chose  The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul by Dave Bruno (I’m a complete sucker for a numbered challenge…I mean, I’m writing this as part of the 100 days project, right?).  This began a pattern of exploration which drastically transformed, and still transforms my life.
I discovered the concept of minimalism.
If you’ve read, or spoken with, or been near me, or know someone who’s known me for more than five minutes, you know I beat the drums of minimalism loudly and often.  I love it for a million reasons. But mostly I love that the closer I lean into it, the better me I become. Minimalism is has opened the door for me to learn to release, to examine my motives, to explore new ways of thinking and being and living. There are other ways to become more yourself, for sure (I’m engaging in one of them for eighty-six more days). Minimalism is mine, and I find excellent company in it.
Moving and writing were the catalysts for huge changes in my life. Some happened quickly, like a van full of stuff to Goodwill, or two, or fifteen. Five years later and I dropped four boxes off today.  The real challenge of minimalism began once I worked past the surface: the closets, desk drawers and garage boxes. Then, I wasn’t just purging and prioritizing; I was engaging in some serious self examination.  I begin to ask myself, “Why do I keep this? Do I use it? Do I love it? Is something deeper going on here?” 
Now I entered the real work, the meaty good stuff. Occasionally it’s intense and I have to step away for awhile, but mostly it is completely, abundantly liberating, like being buried under rocks in a cave and suddenly finding the way out.
This whole journey of self-discovery and recovery is possible because five years ago I embraced a new way of life. I wanted cleaner closets and less maternal melt-down. I had no idea when I started where it would lead. Looking back, the whole experience justifies my belief that a simple thirty challenge just might change your life.  Sometimes change is quick, and sometimes slow, but usually, it jumbles hopelessly together.
Incidentally, that little house the church owns that I said we’d never fit into? Five adults and two dogs comfortably live in it now, and we’re only going smaller from here.

 

The Box of Disorder: meeting God on the Slippery Slope

Yesterday I opened a box will take time to unpack, for me as well as anyone else along for the ride. I shared about Three Boxes: order>disorder>reorder, specifically the box of order. Today I’m ready to tackle the box of disorder, I think.  Let’s find out.

 

Almost everyone has opened the box of disorder. Some of us flirt with it many times in our lives, but never dare to climb inside. Some of us climb in and never leave, unfortunately. Disorder isn’t an easy place to live forever.  Most people who do climb inside react one of two ways: by returning to the order box because of fear, guilt or shame (it happened to me), or by embracing disorder, eventually emerging to enter the box of reorder (this is currently happening to me).

 

Usually we face the box of disorder because something catastrophic happens in our lives. Illness, loss, tragedy, or a drastic shift in life circumstances can send our idols of order crashing to the ground. We stop being certain of anything; we aren’t sure where to turn.  The box of disorder feels like a carnival fun-house with unlevel floors, distorted mirrors and hard-to-find exits.

 

I’ve spent the last few years deep in this box, attuned to terms used to describe the experience: dark night of the soul, back sliding, crisis of faith, falling upward, and my personal favorite, the slippery slope. None of them are particularly appealing, with good reason.  In the box of disorder we are likely to lose our identity, our certainty, some of our friends and possibly the support of our faith community. It’s a messy, bloody process.

 

Sometimes, the box of disorder starts with a simple question: is that really true? You may have heard this question before. The serpent used it on Eve in the Garden of Eden. Did God really say that? Is it really true?  The story ends with disastrous consequences, and humanity has avoided the question ever since. It’s easier to simply accept what we are told without question and cling to order in an attempt to avoid pain.

 

I don’t say this in condemnation, having done it myself.  Sometimes the answer to the question, is it really true, is too big, too terrible, too full of unknown consequences to face.  When this happens, we retreat to the box of order.  Possibly many, many times, we open the lid of disorder to discover we can’t face what’s inside. So we retreat, again and again and again, until one day, we simply can’t accept the easy answers any more.

 

I believe my descent down the slippery slope began just this way, with one question that created a crack in my order box. I ignored the crack for a long time. But like a scab we can’t stop picking, I never left it entirely alone. Eventually more cracks appeared.  They became harder to hide. My box was splintering, drawing attention.  Like Adam and Eve in the garden, the consequences for my defection were swift and terrible. When the dust settled, I mended the box of order as best I could, climbing back inside as deeply as I could. I stayed there for many years, uncomfortable and unable to forget my questions, but terrified of what was in the next box..

 

Eventually, a series of difficult events created too much tension and discomfort to remain. Glue and duct tape, even my prayers and fears couldn’t hold the box together anymore.

I shattered.

 

I couldn’t stop asking the question, is it really true, of every belief, rule, relationship, person and experience I knew.  This is disorder.

 

But let’s go back to Adam and Eve a moment.  Yes, when faced with the question, ‘is this really true‘, they encountered disastrous consequences. However, the more I reflect on this story, the more I realize something very important. Ejection from the Garden of Eden is the best thing for Adam and Eve, and for all of humanity. Stay with me. How often, both in scripture and in other wisdom literature, in nature itself, do we see created things become stronger, better versions of themselves as a result of distress?  We see it in diamonds, gold, marble, trees, flowers even our very own bones?

 

The more I experience life and God, the more convinced I am the Garden, like the box of order, is a beautiful beginning, but not a place we are meant to stay. If we want to become more like God, we need His Spirit within us, which isn’t possible in the Garden. We know and love God best when we also experience that which is not God. Inside the Garden, there is no choice for us to make.

 

Disorder does not reduce. It refines. We become more wholly ourselves when we experience doubt, disorder and yes, brokenness.

 

If we believe, which I do, that Jesus isn’t Plan B, hastily initiated because of our screw-up, then it is true that our salvation, enacted because of the Fall, was always the best possible way for us to become God-like. We didn’t accidentally fall, we were created to fall.  In falling we are finally swept up into the exhilarating, awesome, unfathomable grace of God.

 

Unless we leave the Garden, the box of order, there are ways and faces of God He cannot reveal to us. And He wants to; He’s literally dying to because He wants to be known.  His love is so enormous, so all-encompassing that He desires to unfold and unfold and unfold again each and every time we ask, is this really true?  But we must find the courage to ask. When at last we do, He pulls down all the false and comforting constructs we only thought were true one by one.

 

So we slide down the slippery slope tail-over-tea-kettle, meeting God at every tumble, looking right and left and seeing him tumbling beside us all the while, and when we finally reach the bottom, if we ever actually do, we also find him waiting there to catch us in His wide open arms and ask why we waited so long to fall.

 

The box of disorder is the scariest, loneliest, hardest, most beautiful, most miraculous, most invigorating place I’ve ever existed. Like Adam and Eve, I can’t go back to the Garden where order reigns. The way is closed, not as punishment, but as blessing. The wide world lies open before me, and God Himself inhabits every inch of it, even me.

 

Is it really true?  Yes, but not at all the way we thought it was. Life, faith, love, God, meaning, death, loss, grief, pain, all are so much bigger and more beautiful than we ever dared dream when we lived in the Garden.