Multiple Choice: The Joy of Self-control

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Ideas have consequences. What we truly believe plays out in action when our guard is down. Finding out we have some shifting sand foundations is an unsettling feeling, but I have discovered that when the Lord points out areas of wonky thinking he makes provisions ahead of my questions. And he has something to do with the circumstances that make me frustrated enough to ask questions.

The recent frustration that has pushed me to examine my thinking is my lack of self-discipline, or self-control. I call myself a divergent thinker. I’m usually reading a dozen books and working on a dozen projects simultaneously. I like collecting clues and making connections, but I have a hard time getting things done. If I was organized enough to run a business I could call it Rabbit Trails Are Us.

IMG_1978 grapes 2 ch rsI’ve been learning about the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. One of the big clues that these are virtues that characterize the Holy Spirit’s interactions with us and come from God is Jesus’ statement that the peace he gives is different from the peace we try to make ourselves.

“Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” (John 14:27)

I came to the horrible realization years ago that, on my own, I am incapable of loving some people. Tried. Tried hard. Can’t do it. Years of depression taught me that I cannot pull myself up by my bootstraps and fake joy for more than a few hours. And peace? I could talk about peace, but many 3:30 a.m. wide-eyed ruminating sessions proved I didn’t have a grasp on that either. The same for the rest of the list.

That’s depressing. I went into a major funk. What kind of Christian was I if I couldn’t be a great witness to people with my superior behaviour as a major selling point? (Being just a bit sarcastic here.) I was sure God needed to fire me from his P.R. team. Then I was afraid he would, so I scraped up some willpower and self control and got up to do the stuff again.

Willpower works – until I’m tired, or hungry, or in pain, or angry, or bored, or feeling guilty, then willpower is not sufficient.

I was raised in an evangelical tradition where the will seemed to be the only aspect of the soul that escaped being tainted by the fall. Will-oriented verbs featured largely in every sermon application: decide, determine, choose, act, achieve, purpose, volunteer, engage, carry out, serve, and do. Do, do, do. “Faith without works is dead,” I heard over and over. (Somehow the fact that works without faith is as winsome as last week’s leftover potluck casserole was overlooked.)

The other side of the discussion came in the form of don’t, don’t, don’t. The don’ts, spoken and unspoken, loomed as large as a dirty snow avalanche bearing down on people who are constantly reminded they are sinners. We placed fences around fences in an effort to avoid that which we thought we were powerless, as sinners, to consistently resist. We apologized a lot, then flagellated ourselves emotionally in the self-punishing  guise of self-discipline.

DSC_0007 daisies pick me ch rsThe Lord has been teaching me that it is possible to love others because He loved us first. When we know we are the recipients of his love, and that there is plenty more where that came from, we can start to give out of the abundance the Holy Spirit pours into us.

This has been a huge revelation to me. The fruit of the Spirit is His joy, His peace, His faithfulness, His kindness etc. We cannot give what we have not received. But we do need to open our hearts to all He has for us.

So far, so good. Then I got to the fruit at the end of the list: self-control. Everything came to a screeching halt. Suddenly I felt responsible for producing this fruit in my life via willpower and following rules again.

This doesn’t make sense. It’s frustrating! And frustration forces me to ask questions.

I searched for articles on self-control. Most of them talk about saying no to lust for sex or lust for sleep or lust for brownies. Seriously. Brownies – especially fudge brownies– seem to be the greatest temptation North American evangelicals are willing to admit they face.

A recent article in a popular publication talked about the science of saying no and the means to work with willpower weakened by excessive demand. The author suggested techniques to develop better habits, thus lowering stress on the willpower muscle. That’s useful information if the problem is failure to exercise or resist the urge to eat too many – you guessed it – brownies.

Of course, we need to learn the benefits of delayed gratification, healthy habits and consideration of others. This is the kind of self-control we dearly hope our kids have picked up by the time they leave home. It’s the kind of self-control we demand other drivers display. This is also the kind of self-discipline that can be natural to some personality types (often first manifesting as stubbornness or even OCD). But still, I wonder. The fruit of the Spirit has got to be more than something available to anyone determined to put in effort.

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I looked up the Greek word in Galatians 5:23. Enkrateia. The root, krat, is found in demokratia (democracy) meaning “government by the people.” Akrasia means chaos, a disorganized leaderless mess. Kratos means power or strength or dominion and in the scripture nearly always refers to a characteristic of God.

Be strong in the Lord and in the power (kratos) of His great might. (Ephesians 6:10)

Enkrateia means self-governance. Governing is about being in the position to make wise choices in the best interests of the governor’s charge, in this case, oneself.

Greek philosophers used the word in the context of having authority or power to choose well. That’s when I began to see it differently. What if the self-control of the fruit of the Spirit is not about the obligation to say no to all the things we have been told are bad or could be the first step on a slippery slope that will dump our sorry backsides in perdition? What if self-control, enkrateia, is supernatural empowerment to choose well, beyond the natural ability one might expect?

yellow flowers alley IMG_0056 ch rsThe Bible says we were formerly slaves to sin. (Romans 6) When Christ lives in us he empowers us with His enkrateia – his authority, power, and strength to govern ourselves well, to make good choices based on love. It’s a manifestation of freedom!

What if self-control is not about concentrating on saying no to sin?

What if self-control is about shifting our concentration from what we do not want to do to realizing we are now empowered to see better alternative choices?

What if self-control is about having our eyes opened to possibilities and opportunities to express his goodness, his kindness, his gentleness, his faithfulness, or his love by saying yes?

What if self-control is all about saying no to both depressing slavery to sin and oppressive rule-keeping by saying yes to delight in the majesty of God?

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Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:12-14 NAS)

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Compared to all his delights, last week’s mouldy hamburger and macaroni casserole looks like a woefully sad choice.

I’m including photos that remind me of the abundance of God’s goodness today. I am choosing, with the authority he has given me to choose, to see self-control in the context of an abundance of beauty symbolizing his grace upon grace upon grace.

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Pure Imagination

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A hand-painted ceramic plaque hung, at various times, on various walls in our house. I was always surprised when it appeared in the bathroom or kitchen after previously filling a blank space in the hallway or dining room. Maybe Mom was trying to remind us of the message written on it. To be honest, my reaction was usually, “Yeah, I know. I should spend more time in Bible study. I should pray more. I should pay more attention in church. I should try to appreciate family devotions in the morning. I should stop groaning when it’s time to stop having fun and settle down and get serious for ‘the devotional’ at youth group. If I did I might be a nicer, less anxious teen, or at least less moody.”

After Mom died and Dad moved into the senior’s facility I took the plaque off the bedroom wall and brought it home with me. I think it’s in the memorabilia trunk that’s in storage until our house is repaired.

I thought about it when a song started playing in my head the other day. I have been praying for peace. Distractive worries have messed with my ability to concentrate lately. The words in the simple repetitive chorus were:

Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee.

I’m learning to pay attention, and I know the Lord is reminding me of Isaiah 11:26 for a reason. I decided to meditate on it. First I looked it up in several translations. Then I checked the meanings of key words in a Hebrew lexicon. I found a great deal more hidden in the short passage than an annoying wheelbarrow load of ‘should.’

Keep

‘Keep’ comes from the word that means to protect, shield from danger, surround with a blockade, watch, or guard with fidelity. Natsar describes a security detail like the secret service agents we often see guarding VIPs in news stories.

Perfect Peace

‘Perfect peace’ is written in the original language as shalom, shalom. Double shalom. Shalom is more than a greeting or wish for peace without conflict. Shalom calls for everything to align in perfect harmony to bring about physical and spiritual well-being. Nothing missing, nothing broken, nothing in the way. We have no word in English for a concept of peace this big, so most translators just call it ‘perfect.’

Mind

The word translated ‘mind’ in the olde King James Version means much more than the organ that analyzes and stores sensory input. Yetser refers to a framework, a construct, a mindset if you will. It’s the control center that addresses why we choose to believe and act the way we do. More than that, it means imagination, like the purpose that exists before a creator’s hand forms an object, or writes a description of a character in a work of fiction, or makes a grand gesture in a dance.

Before I started writing today’s entry I had an idea. I collected information, I mused over illustrations from my life, I found photos, I made notes and formed a loose outline. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out but, in essence, the words you are reading here formed first in my yetser – my imagination.

Imagination can be in vain and lead us in a destructive direction when it is not connected to God’s truth, but the Creator of the universe created us to be creative, not merely to follow directions as if we were assembling furniture from a Swedish big block store. If the most important thing in life is what we think about God, imagination is central to spiritual well-being – shalom.

Stayed

I learned the word ‘stayed’ represented the concept of being sustained, supported, upheld, propped up, borne, established, rested, braced, set, revived and refreshed. Camak carries so much more meaning than ‘stay’ (which reminds me of the plastic whalebone ‘stays’ in my grandmother’s formidable corset – the device which restrained Grandma’s ample flesh with the message it could go no further than the boundaries they defined.)

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Yesterday I planted tomatoes which, up until now, have happily resided at Casey’s Greenhouse. I prepared and enriched the soil, then placed them in holes I dug for them in my garden beds. I put stakes and wire cages around them to prop them up and protect them from the wind and, I hope, stray balls when the grandchildren come to play. These varieties can grow heavy fruit; they need support.

My hands were gently tying the stems when the song containing the verse began to play in my head again. Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee. But now I understood it better. I want my tomatoes to grow. I did all the work. Their job is to receive water and sun and soil nutrients and produce fruit. I thought about my Heavenly Father as my protector, my propper-upper, my provider.

tomato cage 1 IMG_7902Unlike passive plants, we have the choice to stay or walk away. We can easily fill our imaginations with dismal forebodings, angry reactions or alternative coping strategies. We can choose to give away our authority to other voices with other plans. God has given us the right to reject his embrace.

I remembered a time when I felt supporting arms upholding me and bracing me in a tough time. Our son-in-law was in the intensive care unit. His condition was so dire surgeons decided the risk of moving him across the hall to the operating room was too great. In a last ditch effort to stop the hemorrhaging in his lungs and to remove more infected fascia from his leg they prepared to operate in right there in his room.

A nurse with tears in her eyes called for his wife, parents, and brother. We all knew by the atmosphere this was to give them a chance to say goodbye. I watched my dearly loved daughter walk down the hallway in a daze. My knees buckled and I slid down the wall I had been leaning against. I had been brave all week but now I sobbed.

We had seen miraculous answers as people prayed day and night. We saw blood circulation restored to his feet as children prayed for his toes. We saw thousands of people respond to a call to pray in unity. And now this.

He was bleeding out and in danger of throwing clots at the same time. He was on 100% oxygen. He couldn’t breathe. He was dying.

I felt so abandoned. So helpless. So weak. I was embarrassed by my inability to keep it together. I wanted to be strong for others, but I wasn’t.

Then two of our daughter and son-in-law’s friends came out into the hallway and stood on either side of me. I didn’t want to be touched but they lifted me to my feet. Each one held an elbow and literally held me up, sustained, supported, propped up, bore my weight, and held on until I felt steadied.

I remember telling Debbie that I knew God was doing something, but at that moment it was just too hard. She and John Murdo comforted and encouraged me. They reminded me of God’s faithfulness no matter what happened.

Some months before he was in a coma, our son-in-love told me about meeting an amazingly accurate prophetic guy. Shawn Bolz told Bruce about the plans God had for his life – and those plans did not include dying at a young age. He said he had never said that to anyone before but the Lord impressed on him that he needed to know.

My daughter and I knew we had to take those prophetic promises and go to war with them. Feeling stronger now I marched up and down the hall in the opposite spirit that prevailed in the hospital wing. I sang praises (softly -–this was a hospital). I sang in English and I sang in the Spirit, something I had always kept very private. I know people passing by must have thought I was insane, but I didn’t care what they thought. This was war. I was standing on those prophetic promises. My imagination chose to see them being fulfilled. My trust in God’s goodness grew with every lap.

My eyes were closed a lot of the time and I was so focused I didn’t notice the hospital halls filling with people who had come to pray that Good Friday morning. Many more in the ICU waiting room, including my husband, had already been there for hours. Hundreds more prayed in churches and home groups when they received text messages. Then thousands around the world joined. We declared he would live.

He did.

On Easter morning he responded to his name and opened his eyes briefly. On Pentecost Sunday he walked into church a whole man with no loss of limb, or brain damage, and with better kidney and lung function than before he became ill. God had a plan and it included miraculous revival.

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I was listening to an album by Selah on my iPod as I finished working in the garden and recalling that day. The song medley, “Standing On the Promises/Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” began to play.

“What are you saying, Lord?” I asked.
“Put the pieces together.”

I rewrote the verse on Mom’s plaque in my own words.

You, Abba, my Father, will faithfully guard and surround with shalom, shalom, those whose mindsets and imaginations are planted, sustained, upheld, supported, braced, embraced and borne by You, because they trust You. They stand on your promises. They lean on your mighty arms – and You provide everything they need to produce abundant fruit.

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Making a Comeback

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“If a man just stops to think what he has to praise God for, he will find there is enough to keep him singing praises for a week.”
-Dwight L. Moody

Two years ago the leaves on our double flowering plum suddenly started shriveling up. Within a week most of them had fallen off. Many of the trees on our street suffered the same fate. Leaf miner bugs staged an invasion while we were out on the porch enjoying our ice tea.

We sprayed and fertilized and watered, but it was too late. It was a sad sight. On her way to her car after a visit, my friend Rhonda stopped and held the tip of a barren low-hanging branch in her gentle hand. I knew she was praying for the tree’s recovery. Rhonda is sensitive to nature. She could feel the tree’s pain and she had compassion.

Last spring the tree sprouted leaves, but there were no blossoms. My husband suggested cutting it down, but I couldn’t bear to let go as long as long as it still lived.  I pruned it back and fertilized hoping for revival even as more leaves browned and blew away.

plum tree under vertical ch rs MG_7846This morning as I look out the window above my desk, branches decked in beautiful pink blossoms wave in the breeze. I can’t see them hiding in there, but I can hear the birds singing. Buzzing bees don’t even trigger my fear of them because they are far too busy with flowers to notice me.

The thirty-five-year-old double flowering plum made a dramatic comeback this spring. We marvel in the show because we feared we had lost her.

This week also marks the fourth anniversary of our son-in-love returning home from the hospital. He was miraculously healed after doctors gave him a 0% chance of survival from flesh-eating disease. We thought we had lost him too. But God had other plans, and we still marvel.

To be honest, this has been a year of set-backs. Half of our house is still uninhabited and awaiting restoration after heavy snow-melt floods destroyed the renovation work barely finished. Just when I thought my nagging health issues had finally been dealt with, the tests say ‘not so fast.’ This will require more treatment and more recovery time.

You may be in a season of hope deferred as well.

One thing I have learned in my life: Complaining attracts spiritual forces who are quite willing to help you with dismal projections and align to undermine hope. Praise attracts the angels who live in the atmosphere of worship of the God of Love. They align to bring about God’s purpose – reconciliation between the Father and humankind and restoration of all creation.

Today the plum tree is vibrant with petal colour and birdsong and the hum of honey-makers. Today I have a reminder right outside my window that God is still in the restoration business and there is always, always something to be thankful for.

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Happiness Is a Direction

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Happiness held is the seed; happiness shared is the flower.
A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery while on a detour.
Happiness is a direction, not a place.

-Sydney J. Harris

 

 

 

I wasn’t expecting to see my favourite wild flowers blooming so early. It’s been a harsh winter in the eastern part of the province. We all feel a bit traumatized. Spring flowers, understandably, are also reluctant to poke their heads out.

I found myself in the Okanagan this week on a bit of a detour from the usual routine. There, beside the pioneer’s cemetery on a hill overlooking the city, happiness turned its face to the sun and bloomed its heart out.

I share it with you.

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Breakthrough

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In this portion of the journey, when steps forward and steps backward start to resemble a cha-cha more than a foot race, I sometimes wonder what is going on. As I write this people the insurance company sent are in my house packing up stuff that, only four months ago, finally had a place. Now, after the flood, it doesn’t. Again. After all that is salvageable leaves in a truck headed to a storage facility, the deconstruction people come to tear out walls I just painted and flooring we just laid. This week I rushed about trying to figure out what I might need in the next few months that I should store in bins in corners of the house that is still habitable. I was going a little nuts.

It felt like I was wallowing in hope deferred.

Then a friend (Godsend that she is) asked me if I would join her and paint during the worship portion of a conference. I was apprehensive about doing what I do in front of real live people (as opposed to anonymous readers). I am so done with performance and stage Christianity, but I decided that hiding is not much better. Besides, I needed to get out of the house – and they let me sit in a corner of the auditorium.

The first night I painted light streaming through the woods as the Lord spoke to me about shifting atmospheres in a way that brings light to dark places, but the idea for this painting, started the second day, formed before the first was even finished. I saw the red umbrella as a symbolic covering like the covering given by the blood over the doors at Passover and the covering given by Christ’s blood.  I saw a break in the clouds. I saw a pass in the mountains with a rainbow of promise over it.

I was also aware of the unseen shadowy valleys between happy greening hills covered with the yellow sunflowers of spring and the places where winter is reluctant to let go of its hold.

As I finished details that indicated a shifting atmosphere the phrase came to me: Promise IS breakthrough.

The answers God has provided to problems friends and family and people I am praying for around the world already exist. God, in his great mercy, takes us through hills and valleys and seasons of sun and storm to prepare us for the rigors of abundance, influence, and authority, but he promises breakthrough.

This weekend I heard, “Know who you are. Know whose you are. That’s your protection, your covering. Lift your eyes and see God’s plan. Quit hiding and move. This is going to be good.”