Self-Control: My Flabby Spiritual Muscle

For the month of January, I’ve been helping the fourth graders in my Sunday School class grasp the concept of self-control.  Together, we’ve mulled over this simple but effective definition: doing what you should do, not what you want to do.  Each Sunday for the last three weeks, we’ve focused on a specific area relating to self-control.  The first topic was controlling our anger.  Fights with brothers and sisters were animatedly discussed.   The second week was all about controlling what we say.  Again, brothers and sisters were the hot topic.  They seem to bring out the worst in us.  Yesterday, we delved into the idea of knowing when to stop, even if what we need to stop is a good thing.  Our Bible verse for the day was Proverbs 25:16:

      If you find honey, eat just enough – too much of it, and you will vomit. 

After everyone had shared how many times they had barfed in their little lives and given detailed descriptions of when, where, and what it looked like, we were able to get down to business.  The kids were happy to share the things they have a hard time stopping – eating buttered popcorn, playing video games, using an iPod, and watching TV.  I generously offered that pizza was an issue for me.  Mr. Whimsey, whose knowledge of me is sometimes unnerving, offered that maybe potato chips, and not pizza, were the real “honey” in my life.  We spent a good hour together talking about our weaknesses and the need for self-control.

As is often the case, God has used these Sunday School lessons to show me where I need to work in my own life.  After just three weeks with my fourth graders, I’m acutely aware that my life is one hot mess of lawlessness.  There are foods I can’t seem to resist overeating, much to the detriment of my health.  When my kids push my buttons, I often give in and respond in anger.  I spend way too much time in front of the computer (like right now, for instance).  I’m forever choosing what I want to do over what I should be doing, creating inefficient time management and a pile-up of household responsibilities.  Yeah, I could very possibly be the biggest self-control loser on the face of this earth.

As an illustration, let’s look at the 50/50 Reading Challenge.  Participating in this fun endeavor has exposed a serious chink in my self-control armor.  I’ve been forced to accepted the fact that my self-control flies out the window when books come into the picture.  Once I begin a book, nothing else exists until I am finished.  I will forsake sleep, ignore those I love, and renege on all responsibilities until said book is completely devoured.  I stayed up half the night reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because I simply couldn’t make myself to put it down.  For the next two days, I was ruined.  (I’m old and need my sleep for optimal brain functioning).  The last two books I’ve read I completed in less than two days each.  This required lots of responsibility shirking and more sleeplessness.  Now I’m grouchy from exhaustion and my family is grouchy because the pantry is empty and they have no clean underwear.  The simple truth is that when I overindulge in the “honey” of reading, I end up “vomiting” all over the important people and things in my life.  It’s really not an appealing way to live.

So what is a weak-willed woman to do?  I could drop the Challenge.  Ta-da! The need to read regularly instantly disappears.  It would certainly make my life easier.  But I’m really enjoying the discovery of new stories and information and the discipline of working toward an attainable goal.  Plus, if I quit, I’ll be missing a golden opportunity to whip my self-control into shape.  And, that’s the interesting thing about self-control.  Even though it’s called a fruit in the Bible, it reminds me more of a muscle, needing repetitive use so it can strengthen.  Every time I practice putting my book down when I should, my self-control muscle will grow.  If I play my cards right, I could be a muscle-bound self-control Hulk by the end of the year.  (I hope I don’t turn green, even though it is my favorite color).  While I have no desire to be a self-control monster, I would love to be able to say “Stop!” and mean it.

Of course, there is no way I’m doing this on my own.  I’m way too weak when it comes to doing things I really love.  This is where God steps in and helps out – if I let Him.  He promises that in my weakness, He will be my strength.  This is reassuring and unsettling all at the same time.  It requires me to do my part of relinquishing control so that God can do His part in being my strength.  This 50/50 Reading Challenge is turning out to be a lot more challenging than I originally anticipated.  But, then again, with a greater challenge comes a greater sense of accomplishment – something I find irresistable.  And so, with a very deep breath, I say once again, “Bring it on!”

One Crazy Decision

I just finished writing an article for the quarterly magazine published by my church.  The theme of the issue is choices and the article focused specifically on the impact that seemingly small ones can make on a life.  As I was writing earlier, I couldn’t help but contemplate choices I’ve made and the unforseen outcomes of those decisions.  One choice, in particular, is very fresh in my mind because Mr. Whimsey and I are dealing with the consequences of it at this very moment.

The responsibility for the first part of this choice lies solely at that feet of Mr. Whimsey.  At the time of said choice, he was only a much loved boyfriend whom I had every intention of making my husband.  He attended a small private college with the hopes of earning a degree in mechanical engineering.  The college offered a 3:2 program that required him to transfer to an engineering school after his junior year for two more years of studies.  I believe when he graduated, he would have been awarded two degrees.

When the time came to transfer to the engineering college, several unexpected issues popped up.  First of all, the engineering colleges in the 3:2 program were prohibitively expensive. Mr. Whimsey also discovered that some of his hard-won credits wouldn’t be accepted by the second school. This meant even more time and much more money to finish his degree than originally anticipated.  The situation was a frustrating one, to say the least.  After many long hours of talking it over with me and praying, he decided that he would return to the first school and complete his degree in physics.  He graduated summa cum laude in May of 1991.  (Yes, I’m tooting his horn.)

After he graduated, he went to work for the landscaper who had employed him every summer and break of his high school and college careers.  The work and pay were steady but obviously not what he wanted to be doing.  He asked me to marry him that summer – Yes! – and we began planning our wedding for the following June.  At the time, I was a full-time student studying cardiovascular technology and working part-time in the trauma/neuro unit of a local hospital.  I wasn’t bringing in much dough.  Although Mr. Whimsey was actively searching for a job in his field, nothing was turning up.  As the months passed, he became more and more discouraged.

For nine very long months, Mr. Whimsey planted trees, mowed yards, and plowed snow. Then, in February 1992, an opportunity presented itself.  My sister, who is an Xray technologist, heard that the radiation physicist for the hospital where she worked was looking for another associate.  She relayed all the information to us and Mr. Whimsey applied for the job.  We prayed and prayed that the interview would go well, knowing it was a very long shot.  Mr. Whimsey had absolutely no experience with medical physics.  Zip.  Nada.  Nothing.  But after nine months, he was desperate to try anything remotely related to his education.

The interview must have gone very well.  Mr. Whimsey was offered the position over a man with several years of experience.  He was ecstatic.  I was ecstatic.  The job sounded challenging and paid decent money.  However, because of almost-Hubby’s lack of experience in radiation or healthcare, the job was contingent on one very difficult requirement.  He had to complete a two month trial/training period of full-time work without any pay or compensation.  Two months without a paycheck?!  Under different circumstances this might not have been so horrifying (although for the life of me I can’t think what those circumstances could be) but we were four months away from a wedding and I was only working very limited part-time so that I could finish my education.  Two months without an income seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.  Just the thought of it gave me palpitations.  Even so, we both felt that God had brought us this opportunity.  We took a deep breath and decided to go for it.

Mr. Whimsey accepted the job, survived his two month trial run, and secured his position.  Our wedding was beautiful and we began our life together without any second thoughts about the employment decision.  That was almost twenty years ago.  He continues to work for the same company.  Now, he has a Master’s degree in health physics from Georgia Tech, which he somehow managed to accomplish while working full-time and growing our family from three to five people.  He has also completed the rigorous testing for American Board of Radiology (ABR) certification, which is the nationally recognized standard of training and proficiency in his field requiring both written and oral examinations.  He is no longer an inexperienced college graduate.  Instead, he is a knowledgeable and respected expert in his field.  (Again, more horn tooting).

Now to the present time, where things get a little crazy and I can only give God the credit.  Mr. Whimsey’s boss is retiring at the end of this year.  Because of Mr. Whimsey’s credentials and stellar performance, we have been given the opportunity to buy the company.  Amazingly, we find ourselves in a position to be able to purchase it.  On January 1, 2012 we will be the owners of a well-established and highly regarded small business – the very same business where he worked for no pay way back when.

Every single time I think about this situation, I just shake my head in disbelief.  We are on the threshold of a very exciting and just a bit frightening adventure – all because we trusted God with one decision in 1992. It would have been so easy to take the comfortable route and stay with a dependable income before our wedding – and we would have missed out on so many blessings.  I thank God for the courage to make that crazy choice.  Never in our wildest dreams did we see this in our future.

As I look back over the years, I can see God’s hand at work over and over again, bringing us to this point.  I don’t know why He is giving us this incredible opportunity.  However, I do know that there is a purpose for it.  I can’t wait to see how God is going to use us for His plan and I want to be ready and willing when the time comes.

A Limited View of Heaven

On numerous occasions, my kids have asked me what heaven will be like.  They are usually looking for some kind of physical description of the place or a schedule of events.  They know about the streets of gold and gates of pearl, but that just isn’t very satisfying for a 13, 11, and 8 year old.  I’m pretty sure their concept of heaven would equate to an eternity of summer vacation – no school, no homework, and no bedtime.  Add a continual smorgasboard of junk food, and unlimited use of Wii and Facebook  and now we’re talking  paradise.  Instead of an eternity of worship, heaven would be eternal play and chillin’ with friends.  Through the eyes of my kids, this is what a real heaven would look like.

I personally have to admit that the “streets of gold” thing doesn’t really excite me either.  But I understand that God is just telling us that the most valuable things on earth will be the things that we walk on in heaven.  I am pretty sure that we have nothing in this fallen creation to compare to what is in God’s dwelling place, no good frame of reference.  This sinful and imperfect world often takes my breath away and it is just a shadow of what heaven will be like.  Paradise will be breathtaking and perfect – exactly what it should be.  And not knowing all that heaven is doesn’t bother me.  If God offers it as part of the gift of salvation I know it has to be good.

I think I have sufficiently established that we can’t really know what heaven will look like.  It will just be a fantastic surprise when we get there.  However, there is one aspect of heaven that I am very sure about.  My sinful nature will not follow me there.  And this reason alone is enough for me to long for the place.  In the book of Romans, Paul succinctly sums up this human condition of sinfulness.

  15I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.  21So I find this law at work: when I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  22For in my inner being, I delight in God’s law; 23but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  24What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?         Romans 7:14-24 (NIV)

Lately, I‘ve been feeling that Paul was thinking specifically about me when he wrote these verses.  He describes my current struggles with incredible accuracy.  His despair and frustration are mine as well.  I feel like a country divided against itself, a civil war raging within my body.  I love God and desire to live my life for him.  My heart knows his love and my mind understands His will for my life.  My soul desires the completeness that only Jesus Christ can give.  And yet, my own will, that sinful nature I was born with, is persistent and powerful.  Temptations are absolutely everywhere.  And let’s face it.  Many sinful things are fun, exciting, and even satisfying (at least in the beginning) or they wouldn’t be temptations.

Sometimes my life feels like one continual struggle between following God and following me and this struggle often wearies me to the core.  I know I will never be able to reconcile these two opposing desires in my lifetime.  Paul understood this as well.  “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”   The desperation in these words is almost tangible.

God doesn’t leave us in this wretched state, though.  Christ is the answer, his death covering all our sins, past, present and future.  In my life, I do not have to be a slave to my sinful nature.  Even when I do give into temptations, I am already forgiven.  And because God is all-powerful, He enables me to resist temptation when I ask for His help.  There is hope in the knowledge of this.  I thank God I don’t have to deal with my dark side alone, but while I am on this earth I will always have my sinful nature with me.

Heaven is a different story all together.  The minute I pass from this world to the next I will shed the sinful part of myself.  I can almost feel the heavy weight of that burden falling away.  No more split personality, goodness and evil mixing like oil and water.  My focus will be singular – to worship God in all the forms worship takes in heaven.  I will finally be completely and wholly the person God intended for me to be with absolutely no more sin.  And no more temptation to do the wrong thing.  I will be a country united and real peace will reign in my soul for the very first time.  Hallelujah!

I realize that heaven is so much more than simply losing the sinful part of me.  Seeing heaven with such a narrow perspective is like describing an elephant by looking at his trunk and nothing else.  At this particular time in my life, however, liberation from sin is one of the things I most look forward to.  Streets of gold and walls of jasper are nice and all, but freedom from my bad self and the weight of sin – now that is heaven indeed.

Mother Love

In the beautifully written novel Snowflower and the Secret Fan, author Lisa See explores the life of Chinese women in the Hunan Province during the 19th century.  Through the main character, Lily, we gain insight into the process of footbinding, arranged marriages, women’s relationships, and a secret women’s writing called nu shu.  The novel itself creates an incredible sense of time and place, illustrating with detail the cultural atmosphere of that era.  Lisa See transports you to rural China with ease and seduces you to stay awhile.

One of the most interesting and difficult passages of the book for me to read was Lily’s footbinding ordeal.  At about age seven, Lily, her younger sister, and her cousin are confined to the women’s rooms and for two years endure the torture of having their feet crippled into lily feet.  Lily’s binding was especially important because the village matchmaker believed her properly bound feet would make her an excellent marriage match.

The process of footbinding involved folding the toes under the feet and then binding the feet so that they were in line with the legs.  The girls were forced to walk on these bound feet daily with the goal being to break the toes and arches.  Once that goal was achieved, the feet were bound tighter and tighter.  Muscle atrophy began and the feet started to shrink.  This system continued until the desired effect was achieved – tiny lily feet, considered to be extremely beautiful and sexually appealing.

I cannot fathom the pain and suffering these little girls endured.  And who was responsible for this torture?  Their own mothers!!!   They bound the girls’ feet, they made them walk on the broken bones, and punished them when they did not obey.   It is true that footbinding was a way for these girls to marry well, to increase their status in society, and to bring honor to their families – lofty goals for women at that time in Chinese history.  And certainly goals any mother would desire for her daughter. As repulsive as I found the ritual itself and the mothers’ behavior to be, the reality was that this was a completely acceptable and expected cultural practice.

Through Lily and her mother, Lisa See introduces a concept called mother love.

“In our country we call this type of mother love teng ai.  My son has told me that in men’s writing it is composed of two characters.  The first means pain, the second means love.  That is a mother’s love.”                                                                                                                                                   Snowflower and the Secret Fan

I really, really wanted to reject this concept with my entire being.  My modern mommy brain struggled (and is still struggling) to grasp this entire concept.  That a mother would willingly inflict that level of pain and suffering on her own child for the possibility of a better life for her daughter and honor for herself was beyond me.   I was certain I could never love my child in a way that would hurt them.  But, as it turns out, I am a hypocrite.  For two weeks I practiced my very own form of mother love, willfully hurting my own child for what I believe to be his greater, long term good.

My youngest son has a mouthful of teeth that requires a great deal of expensive orthodontic intervention.  The beginning of this long process was the placement of a palate expander, a device placed in the roof of the mouth and attached to molars.  With the turn of a small key, the expander pushes against the upper jaw, widening it and making space for the crowded teeth.  I was the bearer and turner of the key, mostly because my hands are smaller than my husband’s and can fit more easily into the small space of my son’s mouth.

The first two turns were done at the orthodontist’s office.  Looking into my son’s face, I knew the pain was instant and severe.   Pain has to be pretty intense for this guy to complain.  He once fell out of the tub, whacked his head on the toilet so hard that he chipped the tank and dented his forehead and he didn’t even whimper.   Well, the palate expander did him in.  He asked for Tylenol like it was candy and spent entire days dreading the evening key turning ordeal.  For fourteen days, we both had to endure the trauma of cranking the palate expander.

I thought a lot about teng ai during those two weeks.  I was willfully injuring my son because I believed that the outcome would improve his quality of life.  It hurt my heart to do it, but it didn’t stop me.  And if I had to do another two week stint (which was a possibility), I would have done that, too.  His teeth needed work.  They were affecting his ability to speak clearly and would ultimately affect his appearance.  If I am going to be completely honest with myself, I believe what I have done will help my little boy be the best he can be in this life.

I am not really comparing a palate expander to footbinding.  But I am comparing my motives to Lily’s mother’s, and we are not so very different.  We both desire the best in life for our children.  We want them to be better people than we are, to have a better life than we do.  Those expectations mixed with our own pride and ambition are what create mother love.  And it doesn’t have to be physical pain that we inflict.  Sometimes, the emotional pain caused by pushing and prodding our children to be what we want them to be instead of who they are can be more damaging than any physical mark.  I firmly believe mother love is universal – not just confined to China in the 19th century or my own experience.

I thank God that I don’t have to be a mother on my own.  He tempers my mother love with a heavenly view of what real love looks like – forgiveness, compassion, grace, mercy, and unconditional acceptance with no strings attached.  Instead of wanting worldly success for my children, He desires them to have a heart for Him.  Today, I lay my mother love at His feet, knowing that he will take my imperfect efforts and turn them into something beautiful.  Or into three beautiful someones – my daughter and two sons.

Work Your Style

Twice a month, my husband and I teach a Sunday School class of very clever and insightful fourth graders.  The curriculum we use focuses on a “virtue” (honor, self-control, honesty, etc.) each month and uses Bible stories and verses to illustrate the importance of that virtue.  Interactive, fun activities enhance the learning process.  A few months ago, maybe January or February, the topic of the month was worship.  One of the follow-up activities helped the kids discover their individual styles of worship.  Worship styles are the ways and experiences we use to draw us close to God and lead us into heart-felt worship.

This concept of worship styles intrigued me – I had never heard of it before – and I thought it would be an interesting idea to blog about.  Of course, when I went looking for the notes for that lesson to clarify the particulars for this topic, I couldn’t find them.  Undeterred, I headed for the world wide web.  What did we ever do before the Internet?  Not only did I find an expanded list of worship styles, I came across a quiz that takes the guesswork out of discerning what my particular worship style is.

http://common.northpoint.org/sacredpathway.html

Worship Styles:

Activist:  draws near to God through bringing about social change

Ascetic:  draws near to God through solitude and simplicity

Caregiver:  draws near to God through caring for and serving others

Contemplative:  draws near to God through personal adoration and heartfelt devotions

Enthusiast:  draws near to God through celebration and mystery

Intellectual:  draws near to God through the mind

Naturalist:  draws near to God through nature

Sensate:  draws near to God through the senses

Traditionalist:  draws near to God through ritual and symbol

(This list was taken from the website listed above.  It was originally produced by Gary L. Thomas, Sacred Pathway – HC, Copyright 2000.)

I’ve discovered that I am a naturalist, with a healthy measure of intellectual, contemplative, and ascetic thrown in.  Really, there is only a three point difference between naturalist and ascetic in my quiz results.  But I would have described myself as a naturalist even without the help of the quiz.  Worshipping God comes very easily to me when I am surrounded by His incredible craftsmanship.  For me, God’s creativity, his power, majesty, and constancy, and even his love and goodness are most easily perceived through His creation.

Some of my most intimate and meaningful worship experiences have taken place in outdoor places.  Several years ago, I was standing on a trail on Mount Rainier, above the aptly named Paradise Inn.  As I looked across those endless jagged mountain peaks and into the deep, river-worn gorge below, I was overcome with the sensation that I was standing at the very feet of God, gazing into eternity.  His presence was almost tangible, his majesty and love mind-blowing.  I could not help myself, I had to worship him.

Two summers ago, I snorkeled for the very first time while vacationing on St. John, USVI.  In that crystal clear, bathtub-warm water I was introduced to an watery world of color and diversity.  Again, I was struck by the richness of God’s creativity and imagination.  And I recognized His great love for us, giving us such beatuiful things to enjoy and care for.   I felt the peace and presence of God and honored Him as I floated above the schools of blue tang, the purple sea fans and yellow coral formations.

I don’t have to go to far away or exotic places to commune with God in nature.  The other day I had a truckload of errands to run across much of the county.  It was an exceptionally lovely spring morning – clear sunshine, the perfect temperature, living things blooming everywhere with that fluorescent green color that is so specific to spring.  Lancaster county has a quiet, subtle kind of beauty any time of year, but on this particular morning I was completely overcome with its pastoral lushness.  Praising God came very easily and my errands seemed like much less of a burden.

Knowing my worship style enables me to actively seek out those experiences that most effectively draw me closer to God.  I have, however, found a few things to be true about my personal worship.  When I am working out my faith on a daily basis and living for God’s purposes in my life, worship opportunities crop up everywhere.  My spirit is free and willing to participate, whatever the style of worship.  When I am living my life for me, allowing sins to pile up like smelly laundry and tuning God out, even the very best worship experiences in my preferred style can pass me by unnoticed.  Keeping my heart open and receptive to God is the real key to meaningful worship. So, how about you…

What is your worship style?