Beginner's Mind. Advent Heart.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Photo by Andres F. Uran on Unsplash

Hey, friends, I'm back!

It's been three-ish months since I've last published a post. And while I could say that's because I've just been "too busy" to write for my blog, what with all of the papers I've been working on for graduate school, I think you'd be able to see right through that one.

Because it's a lie.

I mean, yes, I've been doing a lot of other writing during the past few months (grad programs in English lit are no joke, people). But I would have scheduled time to write here, too, if it were that much of a priority to me. And it hasn't been.

That is the truth.

My first semester of graduate school rattled me a bit. A lot, actually. See, I'm a recovering perfectionist, and as much as I would like to have already reached the point of emotional maturity where criticism doesn't bother me (read: doesn't personally attack my worth and dignity as a human being), I'm not quite there yet. And what I learned very quickly in this first semester was that... well, I still have a lot to learn.

This vulnerability of mind means that I didn't respond to feedback with humility of heart. My semester vacillated between days of feeling like I was totally rocking everything, and moments of crippling self-doubt.  My professors and classmates were nothing but kind and supportive as I tried to make my writing better than it's ever been, but pride still found ways to creep in, twist around all of their well-meaning critiques, and lock every door God was trying to use to slip into my heart in a very specific and necessary way during this season of my life.

I was afraid of blogging again because, essentially, I was worried it just wouldn't be good enough. Not in light of everything I was learning I didn't know.

...Which brings me to this post, and to you.

I'm willing to bet you've been there, too: thrashing about in the throes of "not good enough-ness," trying to make a name and a life for yourself. This is a very human reality, and frankly, for me, it's my own personal form of darkness -- the shadow that lurks behind me as I attempt to do any sort of good work, the demon that tries to keep me small, the gremlin who would have me believe (falsely) that I myself am responsible for creating my worth.

But tomorrow is the third Sunday of Advent, the liturgical season in which we await in hope the Light who will scatter the darkness. The God who seeks to make all things new -- to make us new. The God who continues, every hour of every day, to break His way into our hearts and our lives, as He did over two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. The God who is Emmanuel -- "God With Us".

When we want to give ourselves permission to grow from failure, we have to cultivate what's known as "beginner's mind" -- the ability to go from failure to failure without fear of judgment or loss of childlike enthusiasm, and to trust instead that it's all part of "the learning experience". Advent is a season when we're encouraged to think this way with regard to our spiritual lives as well -- to keep making room for God, even if -- especially if -- we struggle.

So two weeks ago, when Advent began I asked myself where I needed God to breathe new life into my story. What did I need to do to grow closer to Him? Where do I need to make room for His coming?

The answer was immediate: surrender perfectionism and pride for humility.

It's definitely not easy. Like, not even a little bit. Praying for humility, in my experience, results in, um, humiliation. And I'm not about that life.

But I should be, because a humble, Advent, teachable heart gives God room to enter into it more and more, not just during Advent, and not only at Christmastime, but all year -- and all life -- long.

Lord, Let Me Be More Awkward.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

 Photo by Kaitlin Shelby on Unsplash

I like to think I am getting better at listening to the Holy Spirit's little nudges. But maybe I just hope that I am?

If I'm being honest, it's not too difficult to know which thoughts come from God, that is, which instincts are those He wills. They are the restless pings of my conscience, or the thoughts that surface as inspired "great ideas" -- returning stray grocery carts, giving a stranger my Starbucks gift card, calling a family member I haven't spoken with in a while, paying for my friend's meal, or donating the money I wanted to use to buy a new lipstick toward disaster relief efforts. I know these impulses -- these inclinations toward random acts of kindness and love -- come from God.

So the question (for me at least) is not so much, "How do I listen for the Holy Spirit?" but rather, "Will I choose to obey the Spirit when I hear it?"

And that's the key, isn't it? Obedience. When we ask someone to listen to us, we want them to not only hear what we have to say... but act on it, too.

In Luke 9:35, at the scene of Christ's Transfiguration, we read the following: "Then from the cloud came a voice that said, 'This is my chosen Son; listen to him.'" And it's clear that our obedience is what He's asking for there -- not just a passive hearing.

See, when I say I think I'm getting better at listening to the Holy Spirit, I think what I mean is that I'm getting better at identifying what comes from Him. Most days I feel I don't do a great job of acting on it, though. And sometimes it's because whatever it is feels inconvenient; I'm in a hurry, so I'll do it "later"... (which, of course, often turns into, "never." Cringe.)

But other times? Other times I ignore the whispers, the Godly impulses, because... well, because I'm afraid of feeling awkward. What if I compliment that girl on her dress but she shrugs it off? What I flash one of those big, warm grins at a stranger on the street and they don't return it? What if the comforting words I seek to offer a brokenhearted friend come out stilted and stiff and feeble? What if I call an estranged family member but they don't want to talk to me? What if I'm the only one at the party who brings a hostess gift and it's just... weird? What if my friend thinks I'm strange when I break apart from our conversation to offer the grizzled man on the corner the granola bar in my purse?

Does anyone else struggle with this? I'm so afraid that the answer is no.

But if, dear reader, there's a fear in you like the one in me, I want to invite you to join me in saying this short and simple prayer: "Lord, let me be more awkward in the pursuit of Your Sacred Heart."


Sacred Slowness

Saturday, September 23, 2017

 Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

“Who else wants to do the grad student showcase?” my professor asked. The graduate student showcase is the opportunity every student has in the fall semester to present their research at a conference on campus, with research posters and judges and grant money awarded and everything -- the whole shebang.

I shot my hand into the air. Words my mother had spoken to me at the start of my senior year of college -- “Now is not the time to be afraid. Now is the time to be bold!” -- settled themselves over me, assuring -- commanding, even -- that this time everything would be different.

All things considered, I didn’t plan well for postgraduate life as an undergraduate. I suffered a great deal of general indecisiveness that I chalked up to “discernment.” I responded to most queries about future employment with worries that I “didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.” And I halfheartedly responded to a number of online job postings, hoping I’d just passively sort of stumble onto the right one. As it turns out, none of those things were an acceptable substitute for taking internships, arranging informational interviews, or any of the other things that traditionally go along with job hunting.

They were, however, extremely acceptable veils for my fear of failure.  

Well, in graduate school, things would be different, I told myself. I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life. But I no longer want to keep company with the fear that sits beside me. I want to lift its veil and ask uncomfortable questions that make it slink away. I want to run into every strategic opportunity, with such aplomb and abandon that I might trip over myself in my haste to do things right this time. And I believed applying for the graduate student showcase in my first semester was the first step to a killer CV and Ph.D. application. In other words, it was the first step toward my ideal future.  

The next day, I sat on the couch in my tiny apartment, tears sliding down my face as I fretted over a) how to make my project proposal suitable for submission, b) whether or not I was ready for such an endeavor in only my first semester, c) the amount of work this heralded for the coming semester on top of everything I already had on my plate, and d) the disaster I assumed my future would become if I didn’t take hold of this particular professional development opportunity.

That’s when God came down and gently smacked me upside the head (as He does when He has something important to say). “Sarah. What kind of God do you think I am? Don’t you think my plan for your life is bigger than this one thing?”


People say, "Do something every day that scares you," as though that is the only way to self-growth. But what if, sometimes, it's okay not to do the scary thing? What if sometimes the scarier thing is to just breathe deep, go slowly, and be gentle with and forgiving of ourselves? And to be brave enough not to believe in the regret that comes from "missing out" or making what might be the “wrong choice” because we are wise enough to know that even if we don't take this particular chance... God still has a plan for our lives?

For me, saying no to the graduate student showcase was an act of faith. It said, “God, I trust in You. And I believe that my future hinges not on a single decision I could make, but rather, on your abundant grace and goodness. And so, I am going to let go. I am not going to cling so desperately to visions of what I need to do to be successful. Because it isn’t really up to, or about, me, anyway.”

Fellow hustling hearts: You will still get where you need to go if you lift a few things off your shoulders. So do it. Trust in a vision not your own. It’s okay. It's okay to not feel ready for something. It's okay to take the time to learn. It's okay to build confidence as you go along. It's okay to move slowly, and it is even okay not to label that movement cautious fear.

It’s better to consider it sacred. 

Five Ways Starting Grad School is Like Starting High School (And Five Ways It Isn't)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Photo credit: Andrew Neel via Unsplash

Ten years ago I started high school; in a week I begin my graduate studies toward the pursuit of an M.A. in Literature. And as I’m preparing for the next step in my educational path, I’m realizing these two phases – high school and graduate school – are more alike than I’d thought! So I made a list to share with you. :)

Five Ways Starting Grad School is Like Starting High School

I’ll make new friends!

And it will probably be every bit as awkward and challenging as it was in high school. Making the right first impression and finding a place to fit in is a nerve-wracking prospect no matter what we’re starting, and while it may take some time to build community on a new campus, I have faith it’ll happen.

The classes will be more challenging than ever.

In the same way that high school algebra challenged me more than third-grade long division, graduate school courses will expand the limits of my understanding and reasoning capabilities as I delve into more sophisticated academic exploration.

School supply shopping!

I guess you get to do this even if you’re not in grad school; the real world just calls it “office supply shopping.” But they don’t make Target commercials for “office supply shopping,” now, do they? That’s right. School supply shopping is so much more fun.

It will take some time to get familiar with the campus.

Coming out of a 180-person middle school campus and into a school the size of a small college campus and designed for somewhere between 1000 and 1200 teenagers, I felt dwarfed by my new surroundings on the first day of high school (a significant thing to note, because, at barely 5’2’’, I often feel dwarfed anyway). Now I’m entering a campus intended for some 25,000+ students, and I’m sure I’ll get lost at least once or twice. It’s fine.

My sister is there to help me adjust.

My sister works in the College of Business at Colorado State, so I’ll be seeing a lot of her. And she got her undergraduate degree at CSU, so she can definitely show me the ropes like she did in high school… and meet me for lunch a day or two each week. :)

…And Five Ways It Isn’t

Extracurricular activities give way to part-time jobs and professionalization opportunities.

Remember those frantic attempts to crowd our college applications with diverse extracurricular activities, in an effort to show admissions committees how involved we were? In graduate school, the path is much more intentional. During this time, I’ll be seeking internships, mentorship from my professors, and job opportunities with direction, keeping my end goal in mind.

No uniforms!

Praise! I went to a Catholic high school, so of course uniforms were a thing. And the thrill of rebelling by wearing sweatpants or pajamas to class in college has definitely passed. So now I just get to dress in simple, classy, grown-up attire.

Superior on-campus dining options.

This one I may or may not have included just because there’s a Garbanzo’s on the university campus, and I have three words for it: Warm. Pita. Bread. My high school certainly didn’t have that.

Graduate school is an investment in myself.

I probably would have chosen to attend high school even if it weren’t required (I was nerdy like that), but that particular academic tier is more or less compulsory. There’s something empowering about owning my education in a graduate school environment and investing in a particular goal and career path now that I know myself and my dreams well enough.

I only get to study the subject I want to study.

Yay!! None of that math or science-y business I was required to take four years of as a high school student. I know what I love, and I know what I’d like to become. Now, I just get to go be it.  

The Writing Workshop That Wasn't

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Photo by Johan Rydberg via Unsplash

One Saturday a month, my friend Lauren and I meet for a writing workshop at a cafĂ© in Loveland. This precious time gives us both the opportunity to practice a craft that is often overlooked in the course of our everyday to-do lists and activities (the rule being that we can’t work on anything we’re required to do). We get to engage in meaningful conversation and reconnect in exactly the way I feel friends always should – with hot drinks and warm hearts. Not to mention, the coffee shop we’ve selected is just about as cozy as can be – one of those independently owned places boasting a roster of original drinks for every flavor and mood, with cushy couches and armchairs on one side of the room, and baristas who like to chat with you about your favorite Hogwarts house.

We planned to write yesterday afternoon after hitting a few thrift stores where I hoped to find some cheap furniture to fill my new apartment. We made it as far as Goodwill (and an end table I snagged for $2!) before hitting a minor roadblock. And I mean that in an almost literal sense because… Lauren’s car wouldn’t start.

I’d turned on the ignition and was plotting how best to maneuver the Toyota RAV4 my sister had let me borrow for the day (which dwarfs my Mini Cooper and has a considerably greater amount of trunk space for thrifting, but also has this way of making me feel like I’m driving a tank) out of its parking space when she met me at my window with the bad news.

I invited her in and we sat with the windows rolled down while she called her mom (who lives in town), AAA, and her guy friend who’s gifted with cars and could advise her on what to do next. And then we waited forty-five minutes for the AAA technician to come and jump the car.

“I’m sorry I ruined our writing day,” she said.

In truth, she hadn’t ruined anything. I didn’t have a piece ready for her to critique, so while I would have used our two to three hours working on something new, I could do that just as easily on my own. What I value even more than the writing we accomplish during our workshops is the time we spend together as friends.

And we were still doing that, in the Goodwill parking lot, as we waited for the AAA technician to rescue her ’98 Toyota Camry.

“Hey, the way I see it,” I said, “I’m still getting to spend time with my friend!” It didn’t hurt that she’d also placed a bag of chocolate chip cookies in the cup holder.

And so we put it to good use, discussing work and my anxieties about moving, among other things. And while a writing workshop gives us the opportunity to be heard in the words we put on paper, the best kind of friendships give us the space to be heard in person… wherever that space might be.