The acclaimed—and outspoken—author, blogger and television personality shares how faith helped her forge her own path.
Posted in , May 26, 2020
Something you probably know about me, whether it’s from watching my HGTV series My Big Family Renovation or following me on Instagram, is that I like to speak my mind. The things I love—God, my family, my community— I love big-time. And when I see injustice in the world, so help me, Jesus, you will hear me roar, whatever the consequences.
I wasn’t always so comfortable in my own skin. I am, by nature, a type A rule follower, thirsty for affirmation. When I was young, I was prepared to grow up and behave how the Men in Charge thought I should be: quiet and demure. But hiding, posing and pretending is exhausting. It didn’t take long for me to realize that in order to bring my full gifts to bear on this earth, to nourish myself and others, I needed to let the deepest parts of myself rise up.
I wrote my latest book, Fierce, Free and Full of Fire, to share my stories about learning to live more authentically and help guide others toward the same. Being myself has cost me, but I am also breathing clean air for the first time. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m offering you everything I learned, because I want this for you too.
BE WHO GOD MADE
I was raised around well-behaved women like my mom, my grandma and their friends. Don’t get me wrong: I loved these suburban church women who didn’t drink, never cussed and sang in the Christmas cantatas. My mom and the neighborhood moms were all smart and capable, but they rode in the passenger seat. I barely saw women in civic leadership, corporate management—and certainly not the pulpit. Growing up, I assumed that I would find my place in their world, one in which men were in charge and women acted as behind-the-scenes helpers. Then, when I was nine, I met Miss Prissy.
Miss Prissy was a family friend. She dressed head to toe in leopard print, was supermodel gorgeous and blew my mind. “I think I’ll get my nose done,” she said without a hint of shame. Whoa! I didn’t know women could take up space like that. And she refused to apologize for it.
Seeing a woman like Miss Prissy living so comfortably in her own skin opened me up to new possibilities. Later, it was the lady deacons at my first church out of college who expanded my ideas of what women—especially religious women—could be. Then it was author Anne Lamott. Pushing me a little bit each time until my husband, Brandon, and I opened our own church in Austin.
Looking back, I realize I was never wired to be a woman like my mom or grandmother, as much as I loved them. God put other teachers on my path to help me be who he made: a fiery, funny, self-deprecating spiritual leader. I couldn’t be anyone else.
CELEBRATE YESES BUT RESPECT NOS
Around the time our oldest son, Gavin, turned 13, we adopted two children from Ethiopia, Ben and Remy. Overnight, we went from a family of five to a family of seven. We were thrilled to have five kids, but holy moly! We were moving fast. Brandon and I looked at each other. “We’re going to have to really carve out time for each kid,” I said.
We hatched a plan. Whenever one of our children turned 13, one parent would take them on a special one-on-one trip. The details of each trip could differ. Colorado. New York. But one fact would remain the same. These were “yes” trips.
Yes to Gavin hiking up a steep waterfall Mom would normally say no to, yes to two desserts, yes to carriage rides through Central Park, yes to Remy getting her eyebrows waxed at Saks Fifth Avenue. There is a time for restraint and normal rules, and yes trips are not it. These adventures supply some of our best memories.
I wish I could say yes to everything. Yeses are fun. But the flip side of yes is no. Without nos, we would be overwhelmed by our commitments. Mostly, when I am asked to do something, it is for a good cause. I am usually at least somewhat qualified and enthusiastic. I am tempted to always say yes. But unless something isn’t just a yes for me but a heck yes, I have learned to say no. Holding back my tepid yes makes room for someone else’s heck yes. It allows us all to offer our highest point of contribution across the board.
SPEAK YOUR DREAMS
At 29, I felt a fire in my belly to write a book. I was dreaming up whole paragraphs while driving. I also had three small children, no writing experience and no computer. One day, I said to Brandon, “Instead of having another baby this summer, I think I’ll…write a book.” I might as well have said I was entering a bodybuilding contest for all the sense it made.
But my community rallied behind me. I bought a used computer. Brandon made sure he was home on Friday mornings, and a friend came over one day a week to watch the kids. I also wrote during nap times and late at night. As I wrote, I panicked. I lost 15 pounds. Why had I told so many people about my dream? Now I couldn’t back out. But after four months of keeping my nose to the grindstone, I had a book.
Speaking your dreams doesn’t guarantee success, but it puts gas in the tank. Then you take the next steps: research, brave requests, strategic emails, financial investments, a million YouTube tutorials and more. Another term for this is hard work. Unless you are incredibly lucky and privileged, there is no replacement for the real slog of making your dreams happen. But saying your plans out loud is how you first commit to them, and it’s how others know to help.
FIND YOUR PEOPLE
My daughter Sydney was born and raised in Austin. She is grounded, down-to-earth and earnest. In short, she is Texan. When it came time for college, Sydney picked one on the East Coast. Brandon and I said, “Okay, kid” and moved her to Washington, D.C.
Sydney immediately fell in with a group with a lot of razzle-dazzle. Freshmen who sparkled on the page and on social media. About five weeks later, she called and said, “Mom, I think I misread the room. I actually don’t fit this group or this…place. I am more Texan than I thought. I’m scared I missed the window to find my people.”
We talked about how she could find her people. What did she like about her friends from home? Where could she look to meet a new crew? In the end, Sydney realized that Washington, D.C., just wasn’t the right place for her, and she transferred back home to the University of Texas. I was proud of her. She took a risk, and when it didn’t turn out as she hoped, she had the guts to admit it and try something else.
Sometimes community building doesn’t work right away. It might take longer than you want. There can be a few false starts. But finding your people is worth the challenge and vulnerability. Collaborate, partner and share the microphone. Pull folks into your work and see if it doesn’t boost a dozen other levels on your flowchart.
BE SPIRITUALLY CURIOUS
One of my favorite biblical stories is the parable of the wineskins. It’s just three sentences in the Book of Matthew, but it has helped put to rest some of my fears around spiritual questioning. In biblical days, people used animal skins for wine storage. Over time, after the skins had been used for weddings and feasts, they would become stretched to capacity.
Thus, Jesus explained, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the old skins would burst from the pressure, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine is stored in new wineskins so that both are preserved.” In other words, old containers must be retired because they have given all they can. Otherwise, delicious wine will make a mess on the floor.
Dear ones, the wine is still good. If you are asking hard questions, it is because you love the wine. You believe it is good and worthy of consumption.
Wine is Jesus and the goodness of the Gospel. It has survived. It is flexible. I cannot ruin the whole Jesus experiment with my questions. As I’ve grown, the container that held my faith had to be replaced. I have asked, Is this church a place of spiritual flourishing? Is everyone welcome to participate, serve and lead?
What a wonderful relief to learn that it is allowed—encouraged!—to question your faith with each new chapter in your life.
SHOW UP FOR OTHERS
Helping fix the injustice I see in the world—that’s what drives me. In my early activist work, I made mistakes. Such as when Brandon and I chaperoned groups of teenagers to perform unskilled construction in neighborhoods that, it turned out, did not appreciate our ill-informed attempts to “save” them.
It took me a while to realize that instead of centering myself as the do-gooder main character, I could sit at the feet of the oppressed and listen. I could ask what they needed of me and give it. For example, a group of women at my church spend a day a week at a housing project occupied primarily by immigrants and refugees. The church members just eat and play cards together with the project residents, who are incredibly lonely. They don’t want anything major, just a touch of human kindness. I learned that healthy advocacy looks a lot like love.
During 2018’s Austin Pride Parade, our little church took cues from the Mama Bears, an online support group of thousands of mothers of LGBTQ children, founded by Liz Dyer and expanded by Sara Cunningham, who started the Free Mom Hugs movement. We made posters and T-shirts that looked about as professional as something from a middle school pep rally. They said things like Free Mom Hugs, Free Dad Hugs, Free Pastor Hugs.
In the August heat, we waited on the sidelines with our arms ready to hug as though it were our paying jobs. There were people who saw our posters and raced into our arms. “I miss this.” “My dad hasn’t spoken to me in three years.” “Please just one more hug.” We hugged until our arms almost fell off, and then we went home covered in glitter, sweat and tears. Showing up for others doesn’t have to be complicated. Plain old-fashioned love is pretty powerful. You just go where love and Jesus take you.
Check out Jen Hatmaker’s new book, Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire: The Guide to Being Glorious You, wherever books are sold.
For more inspiring stories, subscribe to Guideposts magazine.