Countering Frustration: The Right Tool for the Right Job

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When I was a kid I listened to my mother wishing the grocery budget stretched farther. I remember watching her grab a five dollar bill by each end and actually try to stretch it. When she was frustrated Mom said, “I’m so mad I could spit fuzzballs.” This was one of those fuzzball moments.

Alas, the blue paper rectangle did not stretch. It tore. Right in half. I expected to see flying fuzzballs next. That didn’t happen either. Instead, when she calmed down, I received instructions to go to the store and get the food on the list she gave me. I was to hand the money to the cashier, folded in such a way as to hide the last inch of cellophane tape in the house that held it together, and then run home – or stand there and cry if necessary. As I recall the method worked. I don’t remember if I waited for change though.

I understand frustration. I have never mastered the art of fuzzball spitting, but I developed other creative expressions.

Sometimes frustration expands at a rate far beyond the usual response to the annoying. Like many friends who faced injustice or betrayal, diagnoses of fatal illnesses, or financial ruin, or loss of reputation, or who are misunderstood, or caught in the mechanisms of heartless “policy,” I have found mere fuzzballs, even if I could spit them, insufficient. I have known the feeling of a mushroom cloud level reaction building up.  Sleeplessness, nausea and curling up in the fetal position are less violent, but equally ineffective alternatives.

I am learning to recognize that genuine frustration is giving in to the notion that I am stymied. There is no solution. I have run out of ideas and resources. It can’t be done. There is no try. There is no do. There is only fail.

Frustration is an emotional flailing about before going under the water for the last time.

Frustration is a declaration of the opposite of faith in the goodness of God.

Frustration’s recommendation: Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

But what if frustration is an indication that the tool you used last time “needs an upgrade” as Graham Cooke puts it:
If I focus on frustration,
the core of my attention
is the opposite of who God is for me.

Frustration is an emotional sign
That I need an upgrade.
It points to available increase,
Raising my awareness of God’s provision.
Therefore, frustration must turn to
Celebration of God’s intent.”*

To be honest, when I am on the verge of a damaging, but satisfying explosion, giving someone a piece of my mind I can ill afford to part with, or alternatively, collapsing in a heap of hopeless inertia in front of a speeding locomotive, the choice to pick a better response feels like reining in a team of runaway horses heading toward the cliff in an old western movie. Effort is required.

I need to stop. Then I need to take panting, snorting thoughts captive and turn them around.

My heavenly Father has promised to provide all I need. I memorized Philippians 4:19 when I was a kid. “And my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.

Sometimes he swoops down and rescues when I call. Sometimes he laughs and says, “You need to get another tool. You’re using a Phillips screwdriver. You need a Robertson.”baskets weave woven ch crop DSC_0095

“But I don’t have a flippin’ Robertson, whatever that is,” I protest. (Can I admit I’m not always reverent when it feels like I’m going down for the third time?)

“I know. That’s why you need to get one.”

“HOW?!”

“Look in the fruit basket.”

“What?”

“Remember the time you were fighting the mad clutches of a Chinese finger puzzle-type problem? The kind that gets tighter the harder you try to pull your fingers out? You were applying persistence in resistance when you needed to use gentle patience. You found it in time. Now go look in the collection of fruit of the Spirit I provided.”

I look. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control.

“Why don’t you try joy as your Robertson this time?”

“That’s counterintuitive,” I reply.

“Isn’t it though,” he laughs.

“I don’t have much joy right now.”

“I do. Use mine. It’s free.”

He smiles.

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My fellow believers, when it seems as though you are facing nothing but difficulties see it as an invaluable opportunity to experience the greatest joy that you can! For you know that when your faith is tested it stirs up power within you to endure all things. And then as your endurance grows even stronger it will release perfection into every part of your being until there is nothing missing and nothing lacking.
And if anyone longs to be wise, ask God for wisdom and he will give it! He won’t see your lack of wisdom as an opportunity to scold you over your failures but he will overwhelm your failures with his generous grace.
(James 1: 2-5 TPT)

I’m still here. I’m still learning. His grace never stops. His love never fails.

*Manifesting Your Spirit p.66

Seated in Heavenly Places

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The signs were not good. I was worried. From where I stood the odds against a particular situation in my life turning out well for all concerned were as high as a British Columbia mountain. The word, “insurmountable” came to mind. I wasn’t so much praying as worrying at God, trying to explain the problem to Him from my point of view.

I placed my empty coffee cup and wadded napkin in the trash bag the stewardess held as she made her way back up the aisle of plane. She thanked me and moved on. I turned back to my book.

“Clearly, if we are to walk with the Father in his ways, then our earthbound thinking requires serious adjustment.”*

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I looked out the window at the dramatic view of mountains and valleys below. It wasn’t easy, but I fished my camera out of my backpack under the seat in front of me. I am not fond of heights, but for some reason I love flying, especially on a glorious early spring day with fresh snow on the peaks.

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The flight from Vancouver on the western edge of the province to my city, nestled in a valley on the eastern side, lasts less than an hour and a half. Crossing the province in a little car would take one very long day through deep dark valleys and over high passes. Driving in avalanche and unpredictable weather season is not for the faint of heart. I try to avoid the expense of flying, but going by plane, even a small prop plane, is so much easier.

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I took a few more snaps then hung the camera strap around my neck and read on.

“In His realm, His abundance in heaven obliterates our poverty on earth. In his domain we are never outclassed, overwhelmed or overcome. No matter what is against us, we can win through His name. Impossible odds are fun to Him, who loves to laugh at His enemies.

I laughed out loud. The man across the aisle looked at me funny, but it didn’t matter. What are the odds of me telling God about impossible odds from my earthbound view and then Him telling me about odds from His heavenly view — as I occupied a seat in the sky?

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“We are learning how to occupy a seat in heavenly places in Christ, so that his viewpoint of the circumstances is the one that dominates our thinking, praying, and believing.”

I aimed my camera out the window again. From this perspective I could see lakes and fields beyond the ranges that seemed so imposing from down there. I could see the bigger picture from my chair in the sky, seated where I was in this high place.

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When it came to my problem, it felt as if the Lord was saying, “Keep looking down. You are seated with Christ in heavenly places.”**

In this place all things are beneath His feet and nothing is impossible.”

Nothing.

*Graham Cooke, Manifesting Your Spirit, pp. 28, 29
** Ephesians 2:6

 

Broken: All I Had to Offer Him…

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Have you heard this one? How many counsellors does it take to change a lightbulb?

Only one.

But the lightbulb must really want to be changed.

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One of the words suggested for a photographic meditation in the season of Lent is “broken.” Contrary to my usual practice of looking for beauty in the midst of the ordinary, I looked for the less-than-lovely. For the sake of this exercise I gave myself one hour to photograph only the broken.

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I love photography because it has trained me to pay attention to the goodness of God, particularly his creativity and generosity in nature. I have changed. I used to be overly aware of disorder. Seeing only the broken took no effort, and the loss and heartache it symbolized began to feel overwhelming.

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This is not the way it was meant to be.

Yesterday we gathered with friends to study the book of Matthew. The more time I spend reading about Jesus’ words and actions the more ideas and practices I realize I need to unlearn in the quest to know him. I’m trying to imagine what it was like for him to live in a broken world among broken people when he was the only one who understood the way it was meant to be. He knew what was in people’s hearts, and yet he loved them. He did what he did for the joy set before him – for the hope of establishing a new normal.

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This passage touched my heart:
Jesus walked throughout the region with the joyful message of God’s kingdom realm. He taught in their meeting houses, and wherever he went he demonstrated God’s power by healing every kind of disease and illness.
When he saw the vast crowds of people, Jesus’ heart was deeply moved with compassion, because they seemed weary and helpless, like wandering sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35, 36 TPT)

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I thought about the type of compassionate responses offered to broken, weary, helpless, people falling through the cracks in my own country. We offer borrowed money to feed, drugs to numb, unrestrained sexual pleasure to distract, adversarial court procedures that throw gas on broken relationships to pacify, and physician-assisted death for those who have lost hope for themselves or their offspring still in the womb.

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Compassion without hope can be a cruel kindness.

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Many religious folk have lost hope as well. They may raise funds to offer material relief, or pray that a person will be comforted in their incurable condition, but they seldom act with the type of merciful power Jesus demonstrated. They would never admit it, but their responses to broken people are not much more effective than the Pharisees who saw doubling down on the rules as the way to prevent hopeless suffering. They take a stance at the other pole on the cruel kindness playing field. They see the world in terms of “us and them.”

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Later, Jesus went to Matthew’s home to share a meal with him. Many other tax collectors and outcasts of society were invited to eat with Jesus and his disciples.
When those known as the Pharisees saw what was happening, they were indignant, and they kept asking Jesus’ disciples, “Why would your Master dine with such lowlifes?” (Matthew 9: 10, 11)

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Jesus told them, essentially, that if they thought they held the copyright on normal, they wouldn’t value what he had to offer.

“…Healthy people don’t need to see a doctor, but the sick will go for treatment.” Then he added, “Now you should go and study the meaning of the verse:
I want you to show mercy, not just offer me a sacrifice.
For I have come to invite the outcasts of society and sinners, not those who think they are already on the right path.” (verses 12 and 13)

Earlier in Matthew we read about the narrow road to knowing who Jesus is and the significance of what he has done for us. It starts with step one, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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Being poor in spirit means admitting that our methods of coping with brokenness are not working. It means we recognize our powerlessness. It means looking at the mess we think “is what it is” and recognizing our inability to conceive of how effective God intended us to be. My own heart is convicted.

It means admitting, like the old Gaither song says, “All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife.”

It means turning to The Great Physician and asking him to heal us, body, soul, and spirit.

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It means that we who make excuses about living in a way that does not demonstrate the way Jesus said the Holy Spirit would empower us to act, also need to admit our poverty,  and turn to follow him more closely. Sharing his heart means not only feeling the deep compassion he feels for the broken, but also aligning with him to do something about it.

If we really want to be changed The Great Counsellor is willing.

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Surface

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It wasn’t the kind of day when people think about going to the lake. I heard no boats, or children’s laughter, or squealing teens in the middle of a splash fight. I smelled no sweet  poplar sap or tangy sauce from smoking barbecues. The quiet off-season offers a different perception.

Someone suggested creating a photographic meditation during the Lent season as a preparatory discipline for Resurrection Sunday. If this were a religious requirement to add to a to-do list in order to appease an angry or narcissistic god, I would not participate, believe me. This is voluntary. I respond to this appeal to worship creatively. I make no promises about blogging the process daily. Not everything on the journey is for public consumption, but I will share my thoughts today.

Today’s word is surface, and yet, divergent (maybe even contrary) thinker that I am, I find I find myself drawn to go beyond the obvious and look for objects below the surface.

In a discussion with the religious “experts” of his time, who accused him of breaking the law by healing someone on the day of obligatory rest, Jesus said this:

“My message is not my own; it comes from God who sent me. Anyone who wants to do the will of God will know whether my teaching is from God or is merely my own. Those who speak for themselves want glory only for themselves, but a person who seeks to honor the one who sent him speaks truth, not lies. Moses gave you the law, but none of you obeys it! In fact, you are trying to kill me.”

The people who couldn’t hear pushed back.

The crowd replied, “You’re demon possessed! Who’s trying to kill you?”

Jesus replied, “I did one miracle on the Sabbath, and you were amazed. But you work on the Sabbath, too, when you obey Moses’ law of circumcision. (Actually, this tradition of circumcision began with the patriarchs, long before the law of Moses.) For if the correct time for circumcising your son falls on the Sabbath, you go ahead and do it so as not to break the law of Moses. So why should you be angry with me for healing a man on the Sabbath? Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly. (John 7:16-24 NLT)

Look beneath the surface.

We took a course on parenting teens. The teacher urged us to engage with our kids when emotional issues arose so we could understand the beliefs they held “below the water line.” The example he gave was of a girl who was desperate wanted to make a cheer-leading team and devastated when she didn’t.

After a heart to heart talk, the mother learned her daughter had accepted some lies about herself. Making the squad would squash her fears that inadequate attractiveness, or athletic talent would hinder her acceptance by people in her world. Under the water, lying unseen, was the shallow belief that her worth, her safety, her happiness, depended on what people thought about her and not on what God thought or could do. She was on the verge of making dangerous choices based on an unexamined false assumption.

The example prompted me to examine unconscious beliefs in my own life. One of the questions coming out of that experience was, “Why have I placed the approval of  humans (who can be very disappointing) ahead of the approval of the One who loves me perfectly and so selflessly that he was willing to give his only Son to demonstrate that love?”

In the altercation with the religious experts Jesus says it is possible to see below the surface. Their motive was not based on love. His was.

Jesus’ demonstration of love changed everything. God’s new covenant was not a reform school arrangement with punishments for breaking rules meant to clue rebellious kids into the fact that they are not actually in charge. God’s new covenant is based on responding to his love. Since you can’t say yes to love if you can’t say no, freedom is an essential part of this arrangement. Grace offers freedom. Grace is a terrifying concept to religious experts who are themselves motivated by fear of punishment.

Solomon, the king who was granted wisdom in response to his request to rule well, wrote:

There is a way which seems right to a man,
But its end is the way of death.
(Proverbs 14:12 NASB)

When we are being rational we use reason. When we rationalize we try to give actions, which seem right to us, the appearance of reason. We can be quite convincing — especially to ourselves. Sometimes our “appearance of reason” involves false ideas about God.

How can we know what lies down there? First, by admitting there is stuff down there. Second, by asking for help.

I keep coming back to Psalm 139. The psalmist sings about being intimately known by the Creator from his first moment of existence. It ends this way:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.

Jesus is saying, “Look beneath the surface.” The surgeons who removed the nasty malignant tumour in my guts in October would not have been able to do so if I not had the guts to subject myself to diagnostic scans or to sign consent forms. I admit it was a struggle to trust them. It hurt. But now it is done and I am healing well.

In this season of preparation I am asking the Lord to help me see beneath the surface and lead me in his way of thinking.

Change my heart, oh God. Make it ever new. I give consent.

And I don’t say that lightly.

Grace-fountain Strength

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But Lord, your nurturing love is tender and gentle,

You are slow to get angry, yet swift to show your faithful love,

You are full of abounding grace and truth.

Bring me to your grace-fountain

So that your strength becomes mine.

(Psalm 86: 15, 16 TPT)

You can’t give what you have never received. If the message you have been hearing is that you are a disgusting wretched sinner who (in spite of years of failed efforts) needs to gather up the shreds of your tattered will and try harder, you need to step into the grace fountain and soak up some love.

Let the Shepherd nurture you with His tender, gentle love. Let His strength become your strength and his grace flow through you, not around you. Let the Holy Spirit living in you transform you from a wretch to royalty.

There is a war going on. Hostages of the evil one are believing his lies and acting on them in the streets. You see it.

You are not a victim. You are not without hope. You are loved by the King of the Universe.

You were born for such a time as this.

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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