Finally Getting My Heart And My Body In The Same Place

P1010536

And here I am, speaking at my home church. It was a special moment for me.

It was kind of funny…and one of those ironic-God-is-chuckling-at-me moments. At the close of last year’s ladies luncheon at my home church of Kennesaw First Baptist, a friend asked me an interesting question. She was curious how it felt for me, sitting in the audience, knowing that I could be up there speaking. While I was honored that she thought me capable of it, without thinking very long at all, I said, “They’ll never ask.”

First of all, I didn’t think anyone at church really knew who I was, my gifting, or what I do.  I didn’t feel very “seen” or “known”. While I am blessed to occasionally travel to teach to college ministries, to other women’s groups, and in Europe, and while I love, love, love the college students I get to work with every week in Sunday school, I sometimes feel like I haven’t really found my place at my home church just yet. It’s that weird loneliness-in-a-crowd feeling we all have experienced at some point. In fact, my last few years have involved a lot of soul-searching about my identity (Who exactly am I?), about God’s calling on my life (What exactly am I doing here?), and about how to get my heart and my body in the same place…because, while I live in Kennesaw…to be honest, most of the time, my heart has been somewhere else.

And second, while I am not exactly sure what a “ladies luncheon” speaker is, I am pretty sure I am not that. I’m a Bible teacher. A messy one too. I talk about matters of the heart, and our inner world – the complicated, deeply broken places inside each of us that only we and God see – and how God wants to meet us there. I focus on those seasons of life when things get really dark, of what it looks like to walk with Jesus in pain, and how it can cause the ground to disappear underneath us. I wrestle with deep existential questions of the faith that defy black and white answers. And while the goal is to let the struggle lead us to intimacy with Jesus and the joy available to us as we let Him do His work in our hearts…such joy is often seasoned with a lot of tears along the way. Hardly the stuff of polite conversation over chicken salad and fruit.

P1010530So, imagine my shock when the leaders in our church’s women’s ministry asked me to be the speaker at this year’s event. I was incredibly honored. And humbled. And more than a little terrified. Because getting in front of people and vulnerably pouring your heart out, opening yourself up to criticism and risking epic fails in public…it is one thing to do it in another city or on another continent…it is very different to do it in front of people you see every week and who teach your kids’ Sunday school class.

But I gave it a go. Because deep down, even with the fear of failure, even with my concern over whether or not I would be what the ladies expected or wanted…I really do want to be known. I really do want to be at home where I am. I really do want to learn to be fully present where I live, and to also be fully who I am among those I do life with on a regular basis. And somehow I knew that offering my story and gifting to the women in my church and community would be an important step on my journey to all of those things.

And a funny thing happened that day. As I walked onto the platform…at the same time… it felt like I finally arrived home. It has been a long time coming, with many other “homecoming” events along the way, but this was a big one. Somehow, my heart and my body…long in a bit of an adversarial relationship, finally made peace with each other. The experience wasn’t as much about what I do, as being who I am, where I am. I wish I could explain it more fully than that, but…I’m pretty sure I got much more out of that day than anyone sitting in the audience.

Click here to link to the talk I gave , if you would like to hear it. It is titled The Wise Woman. It is in 3 parts. I love how it came out. 

Living With “The Face”

I was talking with some friends of mine who have what we humorously called, “The Face”. “The Face” is how we described that intangible thing about a person that evidently invites people, sometimes friends, and sometimes people you don’t even know, to open up and begin telling you their stuff.  Sometimes their very personal stuff.  Sometimes at really awkward times.

DSC00286

This photo captures a young me, learning something about the art of listening with a delightful German student.

There was the time when I was in the express line at Wal-mart – and the cashier began telling me about her upcoming second marriage and how she felt about it, how the first one didn’t work out, how her mother wasn’t being supportive… and I seem to recall something about tattoos.  Did I mention I was in the express line? Which is not exactly the place where long-term relationships form. One friend, a former airline attendant, told us about her many stories of, what she called, “Jump seat therapy,” where passengers sitting next to her on take-off or landing spilled their guts…and then walked off the plane.  She would tell them, “Buh-bye,” in standard flight attendant speak, and think, “Wow. I know waaaaaay too much about you.”

We also shared stories of how, in our circle of friends, we would end up in the deep end of the conversational pool, often without even trying, sometimes when we didn’t mean or want to.  And how sometimes, we sort of felt used, even by people we loved, even as we loved the practice of being authentic with each other.

In light of all this, I have realized how my love for people and really great conversation (Which is the basis of all of this.) has, at times, had the somewhat ironic effect of turning me into an even greater introvert. (As if I needed a push.)  The reason?  If it seems most every conversation holds the potential to turn into a gut-wrenching, tearful sob fest, well…some days it is just easier to stay home. (And, side note, I’m finding that this tendency can make people begin to avoid me – which, because I love people, is something I would like to avoid.) We then chuckled a bit, relieved there were others like us out there, and wondered what it was that regularly led people to pour their hearts out to us.  Recently, I think I named part of the reason.

One of the greatest gifts we can give another person is the gift of being present with them.  Of our undivided attention.   When we tell someone else, with our eyes, our body language, our facial expressions, the stories we choose to share, with a well-worded and timed question…that says “I see you.  I hear what you are saying, even beneath the actual words you are using.  I am interested in you.  In this moment, you are more important to me than my phone, than watching what is going on behind you, than me thinking about what I’m going to say to you next.  I am here with you. And I am listening.”  (My friends and I called it “The Face, but we probably should call it “The Heart” because that is a more accurate description of what it actually is.) Some have a natural curiosity and affection for people…and it shows up in their face and heart. Bumping up against it can be a powerful experience for some.  As I’ve met people with this gift, their presence, interest in, and affection for me often surfaces deep emotion in me too.

When we are seen, heard, loved…hearts open up.  No wonder deeply personal stuff sometimes comes spilling out…even if it wasn’t the plan for either of us. When I pay attention to how people normally interact with each other, I realize that this type of dedicated and focused interaction can be kind of rare.  I find this sad, because I think God created us to communicate this way much more often than we do.

And so the next question my friends and I discussed was, if you’ve got “The Face,”…how do you survive?  Because, as much as we love people and interacting with them,  it isn’t always appropriate, or safe for every conversation to descend to the depths of one’s soul.  Besides being potentially inconvenient or awkward, (or sometimes even dangerous) it can be exhausting.  And we realized that people who are good listeners, who have something to give, sometimes attract unhealthy people who may use them for their relational gifts.

Therefore, here are some thoughts on how to walk the line between being a good listener, an interested conversationalist and decent human being who loves and enjoys people –  and staying healthy and safe while doing it.

1. Choice: We should always have choice in where our conversations go.  If you feel like you don’t, it is probably a conversation you should end, or a conversational partner you might want to avoid.  Some people are relational black holes…and their gravity will suck the life out of you if you aren’t careful.

2. Mutuality: Conversations should be two-way streets, with both parties giving and receiving, talking and listening.  If they aren’t, it isn’t a conversation, but a monologue.  (Or a counseling session, which is a completely different thing.) Except in those periodic circumstances when it is appropriate for the conversation to be about one person and their needs, if you find your dialogue descending into monologue, you probably want to find a way to end it.

3. Learn to turn it off: I am learning that, just because I am interested, just because I know the right “next” question to continue a train of thought into deeper places, just because I may hear the emotional subtext sitting underneath someone’s actual words, it doesn’t meant I have to go there with them.  I don’t have to ask the next question.  In fact, it can be a very freeing and healthy thing to learn to turn my conversational radar off and just be in a moment with someone – without looking for or trying to control where it might go.  This, however means I must continue to learn #4.

4. Learn the joys of small talk: I am not a natural small talker.  Most of the time, I would prefer not talk at all, as opposed to talking about nothing.  (Over the years, Sunday mornings at church has ruined me in this area – we go there to meet with Jesus and each other in authenticity…and we waste the time talking college football, the weather and the last movie we saw…I digress, and mini-rant over.) I continue to learn that small talk can be a beautiful thing for all involved, and is in no way an indication of being a shallow person.  It may just mean I am a “person.”  And here is a big lesson…hours of pleasant and healthy small talk are actually very valuable.  They plant the seeds of safety, of affection, of learning about one’s life and relational style, so that if or when a deeper conversation comes around, we are both ready for it.

5. Think about the greater love: There are people in my life whom I love deeply, and to whom I want to give the first of my relational and emotional energy.  If I know my resources are limited, then it is irresponsible for me to give away to others, what belongs to those in my closest circles.  Sometimes I need to avoid or shut down certain conversations if I know it will drain away energy I will need for someone or something else.

6. Find your “life-giving cocktail” and drink it regularly.  If one wants to have meaningful conversations, one must first have something worthwhile to say. (Unfortunately, this is an often overlooked practice in our conversations.) What is it that breathes life into you, that generates substance, character, depth, ideas, curiosity and love for others? For me, over the years I have found the practices (or cocktail) of solitude (which is different from isolation), intentional reading, and exercise do this for me.  Afterwards, I want to be with people more.  (And people seem to want to be with me more too.) When I am healthier, there is more of me to offer.  I suspect each person has a different “life-giving cocktail.” My point is not for anyone to copy mine, but to find their own.  And drink it regularly.

As I write these things, I find myself a bit torn.  At times, the idea of strategically thinking through this part of my life can seem kind of cold and calculating.  However, I want to be the best me I can be and I want to be a blessing to others in my relational circles.  And, as I age, I realize have less energy, less margin, and less time left on the earth with which to work.  In light of all this, I must learn to be a wise steward and manager of all God has given me…including my “face”.

Letting God Lead, Reading Thematically and Being Brave (Reading Well – pt. 2)

Reading for me is a deeply spiritual thing. How could it not be? The ideas and topics I choose to allow into my heart and brain stay with and shape me long after I put the book down. So, as a follower of Jesus, I sometimes pray about what I should read. Not all the time. I sometimes read things for no other reason than I am interested in a topic -and I often read just for pleasure. (Rachel Ray’s magazine is my guilty pleasure)

But I have also learned to listen for a bump in my heart when I come across certain titles and topics. I recognize that during different seasons of life, I am more tender and open towards certain topics. Therefore, I let Jesus have some say in what I choose to read, as it becomes a very important place of spiritual interaction for me. As I interact with powerful ideas and new vocabulary, of course they work their way into my prayer life. I don’t want to be the person who goes to the nutritionist for help and then tells them what I am going to eat, regardless of their advice. I want Jesus to have a place to speak into those things that speak into my life. How could the books I read not be included in this?

In light of this,

4. I tend to read thematically. I get interested in a topic that captures my imagination and will often read several related books in a row. In fact, my bookshelves are arranged thematically, because that is how I tend to read.  Sometimes the author is the theme and I’ll read several by a particular writer. When this happens, I am learning to recognize it as God’s way of getting my attention and asking me to focus for a while. Maybe the topic is prayer, or a biography, or missions, or marriage or a particular spiritual theme related to something in my life. Maybe it is a topic way way outside of my comfort zone or knowledge base – and I need to be aware of it. Either way, sometimes, though not all the time, I will spend a few months (or longer) exploring a particular topic. It is like my intellect itches – and I read till the itch is scratched.

This does a few things for me. One, it allows me to interact with a topic for a while, and some topics need time to be properly absorbed. Second, I don’t read books that just say the same thing. I read different authors on a topic, different sides of a discussion, different views and perspectives. This means that…

5. I am willing to read authors I don’t completely agree with. A while back, I hosted a party where a guy I didn’t know (he came with a friend) walked over to my (beloved) bookshelves and said, and I quote, “I wonder what sort of heresy you have over here.” I sort of hope he got his undies all in a bundle over some of the titles I own because he was a jerk. How is one expected to have any intellectual heft if one only reads one side of an argument? How can one come to their own deep-set theological convictions if they never have to defend them or think deeply about them? Just because one reads authors from the metaphorical other side of the fence doesn’t mean I agree with them. It just means I want to know what they know, to be open to discussion, because it helps me figure out truth in a deeper way, owning it in my heart in a deeper place. And who knows – I am open to the fact that I may be wrong. One thing I know is that I don’t know everything. Heck, I am willing to admit that I don’t know much. So while I definitely weight my reading within the stream of Christianity in which I comfortably swim, I don’t live in an intellectual ghetto because I am afraid of what others may think of me . Or alter my reading because I am afraid I am not smart enough to recognize truth when I read it. Or live in fear that God won’t speak to me about the truth of a topic if I explore alternate explanations. If iron sharpens iron, I think reading across the spectrum, carefully and with wisdom, can do the same thing. But it requires a willingness to be brave. As I discuss books with others, unfortunately, I often find folks who read from fear rather than courage.

Blogging 302 – What Makes One A Writer?

As  I continue to interact with people who are ‘writers’ I am finding that this term isn’t exclusively a profession. In fact, I would wager that the staggering majority of writers out there don’t get paid for what they write. Instead, the term writer is a descriptive one. Like how people can be educators, artists or leaders without that also being their day job.

So what makes one a writer then? Here are some of my thoughts on it:

Compulsion – Some people just HAVE to write. They have to communicate. They have to get out what is inside of them in a form others can understand and receive. They have to connect. (More on this below.) They are compelled to write. How else to explain the blogosphere and the proliferation of folks who spend so much time and energy creating? Some people just ARE writers. I suspect if they were transplanted to an illiterate culture where writing did not exist, the thing inside of them that compels them to write in our culture would make them storytellers, artists, actors or some other form of creative. Creatives are those people who must create something. Writing is just the medium some people use. I couldn’t not write at this point in my life. I am compelled. I am sure I am not alone either.

Consistency – Lots of folks start things, maybe go strong for a while, and then…eh…not so much. The blogosphere is filled with blogs whose last entries were months, even years ago. Then, there are those people who have proven over the years, through consistent production, that they are writers. I would suggest that writers show themselves over time by following the same path. It may take different forms over the years and may produce different levels of work in different seasons of life, but writers…consistently write.

Connectivity – Writers, like other creatives, long to connect with others. Even though I have said repeatedly on the blog that even if no one ever read what I write, I would still write and it would still be a worthwhile endeavor, (and this is completely true) – I am pretty sure that every writer longs for someone to read their work. Why? Because writers are striving to connect with others. To find that common ground that unites us. The stereotype of a serious writer is that of an introvert, hermit, hunched over their typewriter/macbook in their pajamas and unkempt hair because they don’t have anywhere to go or friends in the outside world. They may also own cats with whom they talk to way too much. While there may be a ring of truth to this (I have been known to write in my pi’s, but I promise, I am currently fully dressed with makeup on even! And I’ve got friends! And I go outside. Often!) I suspect that many writers defy this mold. Instead, they long deeply to be where people are, even if the connecting point is the written word. Even if their meeting place is online.

Blogging and Writing 203 – Idea Stewardship

How to handle and manage ideas, getting them from head and heart to paper?

In my style of writing, some ideas have a shelf life. In other words, often my ideas are strongly linked to now. To the moment.  To what is going on when they are generated. If I sit on them and don’t work with them while they are passionately on my heart, my desire to work with them disappears.

This affects the pacing of how I write. There are times where an idea pops by for a visit in my heart and brain and I can park it in the wordpress queue. It doesn’t seem to mind if I put it off for a while, just as happy to get some of my time whenever I can offer it. Then there are ideas who are more demanding – wanting something of me RIGHT NOW!!! When that happens, or when certain ideas just seem to be flowing in a “Deanna, pay attention, this-is-a-special-moment!” kind of way, I need to carve out time pretty quickly to work with them or…they go away. The creative spark, the mojo, the emotional investment fades. The idea is lost. Not because I didn’t record it fast enough, but because I didn’t flesh it out and give it life within the window of inspiration. And mojo is really hard to find. At least for this natural nerd.

I suspect other creatives know what this feels like. An idea comes alive and is moving in a moment… and then the energy behind it disappears. As I continue to walk a writer’s path, I am learning how it feels in my heart when the time is “now” – to focus and sit on down at the computer and stay there till my work is done.  And I am learning to recognize which ideas need immediate attention and which can be parked for later.These two things, how ideas feel and what they need from me to steward them well, are higher level writing skills that have only emerged in the last couple of years or so. I would encourage writers out there to spend some introspective time figuring what this looks like for you.

The writing process usually involves two very important parts. First, inspiration (the part I can’t control) – then, perspiration (the part I can control). When I find ways to marry the two, they have the most beautiful babies.

Just because an idea might need immediate attention to craft it properly, that doesn’t mean it needs to be published right away. I may write a series of blog entries a few weeks or even months before they post. Sometimes idea stewardship means having the discipline to sit with it a while, even when it feels like it is burning a hole in my blog queue. This patience allows me to interact with an idea or theme for a longer period of time. The longer I work with it, often, the sharper my articulation of it becomes. And the greater my engagement with Jesus is over the idea in my writing piece, which is often my personal goal in the process.

I almost always revisit things I write in the week or two before I publish it. I may make adjustments or I may not. It depends. It isn’t unusual for me to find sentences that made sense to me in the first writing, when the passion was flowing, that look overdone or nonsensical a few weeks later. Giving myself a longer window of time to interact with an idea often produces a very powerful synergy:

1.The energy  and spontaneity of the moment (my heart)

2. The safety net of time to cool down and engage my logical analysis (my head)

3. The time to work, work, work (my hands)

These are some of the keys to my idea stewardship.

Blogging and Writing 202 – Idea Generation

I guess one of the most basic questions for bloggers is, “How do you decide what to write about?”  While it may be one of the first questions asked, I think it is one of the later questions to be answered. I wrote for years before I truly found what it was I wanted to consistently write about.

Let me explain.

I am not saying that bloggers don’t start out with an idea of what they want to say. Of course they do, or they wouldn’t blog. What I am saying is that for some of us, it takes time and just writing for a while to find the themes that really resonate with others, that seem to flow out of us most effortlessly – or are at least the effort!

I began blogging 7 years ago about stories of what was happening in my life. Along the way, I found that incorporating the spiritual themes I was learning was what really popped out of my writing. Then, as I began to focus more specifically on the actual places in my heart and life where Jesus showed up consistently and powerfully, my writing jumped a level. So did my readership. So did my passion for writing.

I didn’t start out writing like I do now. It took the practice of consistently writing for years, of consciously evaluating what worked and didn’t, of examining what rang my writer’s bell. It has taken time. I also ask for feedback from those whose opinions matter to me.

So, back to the question of how to decide what to write about…my advice is to begin with what is on your heart, whatever that is. I think the greatest sin in writing isn’t in writing badly, but in not writing at all. Then, write consistently, whatever that looks like for you. For me it is at least once a week, and usually at least twice, centered around whatever series’ I am working through at the time. (Again, this rhythm has emerged over the years. I didn’t start out at this pace. It is just what works for me now and is subject to change.) Then, evaluate where your writing seems to come to life, where it seems to move or connect with other people. And then, be willing to be open – to change, adjust and grow.

Now that I know what I really, really want to write about, idea generation isn’t the problem. Idea retention is. (See previous post in this series.) As I go through my life, blog entries along my heart themes seem to emerge naturally in the everyday. My job isn’t really to generate ideas, but to capture the ones that show themselves throughout my normal activities. Then to hone them into a useable form. 

And I generally try to live an idea generating life anyway. I read stimulating books and other blogs. I engage others in honest, deep conversation. This allows me to hear another’s heart and practice articulating mine. I move my body to sensory-stimulating environments – beautiful places, people-watching venues, etc. I walk, run or swim often – these are perhaps some of the greatest idea generators in my life’s rhythms – and I think almost everyone ought to walk or exercise more:) I regularly practice solitude and quiet, giving myself time and space to hear the ideas percolating from within.

Here’s the bullet point summary:

1. Practice writing about whatever – and see what happens. What you love to write about and what you write well about will eventually rise to the surface. 

2. Live an idea generating life – one that is outwardly oriented and inwardly nourishing. This will look different for each person. Then, keep post-it notes handy.

3. Pay attention – to what works, what resonates, what stinks and what you enjoy. Regular self-evaluation is a strong tool of improvement. 

Blogging and Writing 201 – Idea Preservation

I was asked recently, “Do you have a place where you collect your stories and illustrations, to write or speak with later?” This is a great question and I’ve actually wrestled with it for years. I think many communicators, writers and creatives have. Maybe a better way to word the question is, “How does one preserve ideas for later use?” 

If you’ve spent anytime in the creative process, you know how ideas seem to have a life of their own. They show up when they want (often inconveniently) and if we aren’t careful to pay proper attention to them at that moment, they have a way of disappearing quickly. There are few things more frustrating than knowing you had an amazing idea, only to lose it because you couldn’t write it down fast enough, or because you lost the napkin you wrote it on.

Holy ground for me. Lots of places to park ideas till I am ready to get to them. And lots of idea generators right in front of me. Plus a ton of memories.

You also probably know that some ideas aren’t for now, but for later. I often come up with the main points of a blog series months before I actually write it. The ideas may need to germinate a while longer before I am creatively and spiritually ready to tackle them. Practically, there may not be proper time to devote to the project. Parenting has that tricky way of interfering with life…

I sort of have a system for idea storage because I think it is good intellectual stewardship. If God sees fit to give me a great idea, I had better see fit to find a way not to lose it. And I sort of don’t have an idea storage system because it can easily devolve into a control thing. Jesus is the source of my creativity and sometimes trying to control it too much is actually a way to remove the process out of His hands. Part of my creative philosophy involves recognizing that all my abilities and ideas are actually His. I just get to channel them and pass them on. Idea generation for me is a deeply spiritual thing – a spiritual discipline almost.  It goes hand in hand with my relationship with Jesus and flows from my time with Him. I never want to get to the place where I try to write without Him and just from the notes I’ve accumulated. Therefore, an element of it needs to be dynamic, loose and a little messy, a little bit out of my control. Otherwise it loses some of its power. It becomes me writing – and on my own, I’m not really that good. At least that’s how it works in my life.

All that being said however, here are is one practical way I hold ideas till the right time arises to develop and use them.

I have a dedicated space I work in – and I use it to store my ideas visually and in an incomplete form in front of me. Like most people, I have a desk where I park my computer. But I also view this space as more than just that – it is holy ground. My eyes spend a lot of time looking at the corner in front of me, so what that space looks like is important. It will generate or deaden my ideas and thoughts. I have two whiteboards there, a magnet board and lots of sticky notes on hand. As ideas float around, I park them for a while where I can see them, till I can get back to them. Keeping them in front of me is a valuable way to allow my thoughts to develop and percolate until it is writing time.  In a down moment, as my thoughts drift, these ideas find their way back to my mental front burner and when the time is right, get handled. (More on writing when the moment of inspiration hits in a later post.) My idea storage isn’t a file, but the wall space in front of me.

Also, my most recently read books are here. I keep lots of highlighters, colored pens and sticky notes nearby for when a creative moment strikes. I also have photos of meaningful things here. Postcards of important trips. Unusual and funny kid pictures. Verses that are especially vital for me at the present time.  It might be more cluttered than some like, but visually, it is a happy, vibrant place. It stirs my mind and spirit. It works for me. Jesus and I spend a lot of time together here.

I do have to protect it however. Life is crazy. I have 3 kids who try to creep their stuff in here. I have to fight to keep it ordered. When I do however, it does great things for my creative process.