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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Anxiety: a poor use of space

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“We must learn to cast off our anxieties because we have so many of them. The world destroys spiritual life by generating constant anxiety. Jesus said that the life of the gospel is choked out by the cares of this world. We know this to be true yet we are more chained and tethered to the world than ever before in the human race.”

-John Ortberg

I’m still cleaning out corners of the garden. The old dead growth needs to go. I need the space for healthy plants.

I’m still cleaning out corners of my mind. Old ways of thinking need to go. I need the space for healthier thoughts.

 

 

Promises, Promises, My Kind of Promises

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“Well,” she said, standing in the middle of a pile of what we might call reduced circumstances, “I guess this is my new normal.”

My friend was too tired to fight the injustice that brought her to this place. In a way she accepted it as her lot in life, as a fulfillment of predictions spoken over her in the past. Teachers, social workers, and bosses didn’t always wait to be out of ear shot before they said things like, “She’ll never amount to much,” or “What do you expect from someone with her background?”

I tried to encourage her, but My words slipped past her ears as if she assumed they were meant for someone else, someone more worthy of love and respect. She shrugged and went back to unpacking her baggage.

I was thinking about the word “normal” yesterday. Her normal. My normal. God’s normal. How does our acceptance of limited expectations become normal? What if we have glimpses of possibilities that are beyond past experiences? Does seeing potential wreck our concept of normal?

Yesterday I was lying in bed exchanging text messages with my eight-year old granddaughter who is currently with her family in Africa. I wondered what my grandmother would have thought if she had seen this possibility when I was an eight-year old. A phone with no wires, that could send and receive voices, text, photos, and even video of a new house on the other side of the world in a few seconds? Impossible!

In an old trunk I’ve stored a letter my grandmother received from her mother in Ontario. Grandma’s child had died tragically in Saskatchewan. Her mother’s written words arrived weeks after the funeral. In comparison, my granddaughter was telling me about her new surroundings and their arduous two day trip from western Canada to South Africa. On the same day. As she ate breakfast. I love listening to her.

Then my wifi cut out.IMG_7057 cell phone

We have been having problems with it lately because of the floods. I felt angry and frustrated with such unreliable service – a service that has only been available to me since I acquired a cell phone. It’s not that I feel entitled to a method of communication we never dreamed of when I was a child, it’s that I feel disappointed by the loss of a means of communication I now know exists. My sense of normal has been changed by knowledge of a device that only existed in the future of the girl I was when I talked to my grandmother as I wrapped myself in the cord attached to the telephone in the hallway. She never even dreamed of such a thing as she told me about how she used to send letters to her mother in a cabin in the bush thirty miles from the nearest road. “Normal” changes with visions of possibilities.

I was thinking about this when a line from a song began playing in my head. The song, as is often the case with songs God uses to communicate with me, came out of the blue and was one I haven’t heard in years. The line that kept repeating was, “Promises, promises, My kind of promises…”

I did an internet search and found the lyrics by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, which are, in part:
Oh, promises, their kind of promises, can just destroy a life
Oh, promises, those kind of promises, take all the joy from life
Oh, promises, promises, My kind of promises
Can lead to joy and hope and love – and love!

I asked the Lord why he was bringing this to my attention. I always thought promises were good things, but he began to remind me of bad promises that had been spoken over me the way curses had been spoken over my discouraged friend.

I promise you there will be punishment when we get home.
I promise you that no one will ever love a fat girl.
I promise you that you will never have friends because you don’t know how to be a friend.
I promise you that no one remembers who came in second.
I promise you that you are only as good as your last performance.
I promise you that when those people learn you are just a poor girl from a poor family they will drop you so fast…
I promise you that no one cares what you have to say. You’re just a woman. Shut up and follow the rules.
I promise you God has no time for people like you who still sin and don’t earn his favour.

I wasn’t expecting a rush of these memories. Some of these “promises” I walked out on years ago. Some still sting.

I had to ask, “What are Your promises, Lord? What do you see instead? What possibilities do you want to show me that change my sense of ‘normal?’”

He is changing me. He is replacing old expectations of limits with new possibilities. He is saying, “Believe this and not this.”

So much of this journey is about learning to let go, to unlearn, to press on in the absence of the familiar, to absorb and be infused with the “insteads” that Jesus announced when he read his mandate aloud to a people living in resigned disappointment. From Isaiah 63:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

Who does Jesus say you are? What are the promises he has spoken over you? What  possibilities is he showing you that you never dreamed of before?

Ask him about your new normal. He loves that question.

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You Are With Me in Those Dark Moments

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“The silence that makes it possible to hear God speak also makes it possible for us to hear the world’s words for what they really are – tinny and unconvincing lies.”

-Eugene H. Peterson

In the past few weeks I’ve needed time and space to listen. Then I needed more time and more space to sort out the voices.

The Bible says not to believe every spirit, but to test the spirits to discern if they are from God. The enemy of our souls is also called the father of lies. A lot of the work of inner healing is about identifying and letting go of lies we have believed about ourselves. When Adam and Eve covered their shame and hid from God after they believed the tempter’s lie God said to them, “Who told you you were naked?”

Hint: If he was asking, it wasn’t him.

I’ve had a lot of emotional healing in my life. Each time I think I’ve addressed everything by forgiving, taking my hands off the throat of the person I felt hurt me, blessing them and turning to Jesus Christ to meet my needs. And he does.

Then after a while Holy Spirit decides it’s time to take me deeper.

The process of healing the soul and renewing the mind sometimes makes me feel like I am going in circles. I thought I dealt with this memory or this resentment already, but here it is back again. I am realizing that the circle is actually a spiral and each time we go around we go deeper. Each time I am more willing to let him touch the more painful places because I am learning to trust his love and faithfulness to complete what he started.

Recently two kind women were helping me recognize barriers that were keeping me from staying close to God. I needed to forgive again and bless again. Then one asked me, “How did you envision God when you were a child?”

I told her about the recurring nightmare I had for years as a child. In the dream I’m sitting on a dock and dangling my feet in the water. Others are enjoying putting their bare feet in the lake and laughing and splashing each other, but there is no room for me so I sit on the left side of the warm wooden pier. Suddenly the sky turns dark and wind blows sleet in our faces. The adults are angry with me for starting this. They tell me it is forbidden to put my feet in the water on that side. I am taken to a pit that is the bottom of an elevator shaft to be punished for my crime.

My family is sad that I am about to be crushed but they try to cheer me up with gum and comfort me by covering me with an army blanket. Nevertheless they do nothing to rescue me because this is what God requires. People who commit sin, even if they didn’t know it is a sin, must be punished for the good of the community. I watch the square floor come down and I know that this is God Himself coming down to crush me. I wake up just before the cold metal touches my face.

Of course I don’t believe there is any truth in that dream. I think it was sent by an agent of the father of lies to keep me from being able to love God freely. I didn’t think there was any reason to talk further about it. It was a long time ago. I have moved on.

“I’m going to do something different,” said the counselor. “I do this to help people who have been in traumatic situations. I have never prayed through a dream before, but because this nightmare was traumatic for you, let’s ask Jesus what he wants to do instead.”

We prayed, then I closed my eyes and walked through the dream again. I pictured Jesus with me.

“Where is he?” she asked.

“In the pit. He’s under the blanket with me.”

“And what does he want to show you?”

I waited. Then I saw Jesus take my hand as he welcomed the elevator.

“What does he want to show you about God?”

I cried.

“He’s showing me that God is my elevator, not my annihilator. He is introducing me to the God who has come to lift me out of the pit.”

Oh, my God! (I mean that in most most literal respectful way.) In all the years that dream has been lingering in the backroom of my memory I never noticed the significance of the word elevator. It is God who elevates me, lifts me up to sit with him in heavenly places.

That which the enemy of my soul sent as a message to fill a child with fear and discouragement the Lord of Life, in his goodness and mercy, could turn around in a few minutes into a symbol of hope and deliverance. The fearful image has been transformed in my mind into an image of hope.

The Eternal is my shepherd, He cares for me always.

He provides me rest in rich, green fields
    beside streams of refreshing water.

He soothes my fears;

He makes me whole again,
    steering me off worn, hard paths
    to roads where truth and righteousness echo His name.

 
Even in the unending shadows of death’s darkness,

    I am not overcome by fear.

Because You are with me in those dark moments,

    near with Your protection and guidance,
    I am comforted.


You spread out a table before me,

    provisions in the midst of attack from my enemies;

You care for all my needs, anointing my head with soothing, fragrant oil,

    filling my cup again and again with Your grace.
 
Certainly Your faithful protection and loving provision will pursue me

    where I go, always, everywhere.
I will always be with the Eternal,
    in Your house forever.

(Psalm 23 The Voice)

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Thank you, Lord.

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