Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Discipline of Self-Pity

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.  Hebrews 12:11-12

Poor me.
You know the feeling. Absolutely stuck doing something you wish you weren’t, something that everything in you screams I don’t want to do this… but I have to. Something noble even, something good. But a task that takes you to the brink of your selfishness and beckons you leap to your death.

I remember feeling that way at age 12, when I had to carry heavy wood in each day to fuel our family’s wood stove. My chore, my dreaded, hated, daily job in winter, was to walk the cold distance to the wood pile outside and pile my arms full of chopped wood. 

I would then carry it numbly back to the house and stack it neatly in its place behind the stove. My arms hurt, my hands got splinters, my back ached. I was generally offended that as a girl I had to do such an unladylike task. 

I fumbled with the door, arms already piled high, as self-pity washed over me like a wave of muddy water. Poor me. 

As a young missionary I felt that way in our African village any time I tried to take a nap. Living on the equator, we lived a routinized life. The sun rose at 6:30 am and set at 6:30 pm, every day of the year.

Water was carried at sunrise, and laundry was done at midmorning. Lunch preparations took the next two hours, and then the gardens needed tending. 

Evening brought another water fetching, the homecoming of the goat herds, and the quiet hum of children running to neighboring huts to borrow embers to start the dinner fires. Anyone who did anything outside the routine was strange. 

Just a short nap... please can you go away?
Well, I desperately needed naps. Alone, in a dark room. And this was just not done. All the non-stop extroversion of communal life in a village wore my introverted self out. Frequent migraines blinded me with their vice-grip of pain. I would dutifully hang my laundry out for all to see, then sneak in my hut for a quick hideaway nap. 

Inevitably, as soon as I lay down the visitors would begin streaming to my door. 

“Chizi, what are you doing?” 

“Chizi, why are your shutters closed?”

“Chizi, can I have a drink of water?” 

“Chizi, my baby needs medicine.”

Laying there in exhaustion, right on that blissful edge of deep sleep, I would be jolted painfully awake to the reality that others were in my life, others needed me, I was called to serve others, even when I didn’t feel like it. I had no choice but to get. up. Poor me.

This week, my pitiful unhappiness was brought on by influenza. After caring for two of my children who were sick with flu for a week, I succumbed to it with a crash. Lucky for me it was Saturday, and I could sleep. 

But the flu did not go away in one day. The rest of the week wore on and the demands on my service continued whether I liked it or not, whether I felt like it or not. I was miserable and angry. But little ones continued to need their lunches, their lessons, their rides to piano practice. Poor me.

Now today my husband is sick too. I am faced with a choice. Blow up the balloons, buy the cake, hang the streamers and throw the pity party? Or keep plugging on even though I don’t feel like it? There is bound to be a better way.

Self-pity is a terrible taskmaster. 

Self-pity immobilizes us.
  • It drives us to a place that can never satisfy. Self-pity drives us away from others and toward our selves and our own comfort. 
  • Like a car stopped by a tree it immobilizes the service we are called to do and it robs our joy and love for others. 

We desperately clamor for comfort, for healing, for relief from our ailment. The end is more exhaustion, and a hardened heart toward others. This is the reality of the pity party.

But it does not have to be that way. 

Self-pity can be bridled, it can be driven toward a different purpose. 

  • It can be an impetus for discipline, the discipline of looking up, away from self, to the One who can and will give us the strength we need when we are absolutely empty. 
  • It can create in us a wonderful habit of continually entrusting our needs for rest and wholeness to the only One who can truly provide for them. He knows the sleep-deprived new mother needs a long nap. God will clear the crowds, quiet the cries, and sing over his exhausted ones (Zephaniah 3:17).
  • By allowing self-pity to drive us to God instead of to self-absorption we can cultivate a new dependance, a new certainty, that He can be trusted to take care of us always, in every circumstance. 
  • Resisting self-pity can actually foster greater reliance upon His supernatural power, the kind of unexplainable relief that comes like a $500 dollar check in the mail on the day rent is due. 

God’s discipline is there, just beyond the raging pull of self-pity, and He promises our obedience in this trial will produce in us a harvest of righteousness, the training of peace (Hebrews 12:11). 

Yes, it is unpleasant. Weakness and sickness, chores and duties are painful to our frail bodies and minds. We are lame, after all, as Paul points out. However, we need not become disabled.

There is a strength promised to the one who would be disciplined by self-pity. It is a promise, and we can be sure it will be delivered to us. He who has promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23). 

Come, friend, take my arm and let’s leave this pity party today. Let’s make a level path for our feet out of this awful place.

How have you resisted self-pity in your life? Your story might strengthen another today.  

Thursday, January 8, 2015

From Fear to Faithfulness

"Your words are not your own."

That’s what Mr. Bill said the first time I met him. Eyes sparkling like a hardy twenty-year-old, the spry old man stopped me in the parking lot of our local grocery store for a chat.  

Silky white hair peeked out beneath an oversized Chevy baseball cap and he wore a plaid shirt, clean and tidy, tucked into sturdy Wrangler jeans. Cinching everything together was a wide leather belt which reminded me of the biblical Belt of Truth. 

Hard-worked hands tremored as he gestured and talked about his boyhood, his happy years with his late wife, and days on the farm. 

In my suburban-mom rush, I almost didn’t take time to stop. I nodded politely as I loaded groceries into the back of the car, ushering children into their carseats and thinking about how I needed to get home and start dinner.  

But something grabbed me like an invisible hand, saying, listen. He has a message for you today.

In our small southern town, street conversations like this one used to be a daily comfort, an occurrence as frequent and accommodated as the train passing through, blocking traffic for a spell. But times have changed, and today people curse under their breaths at the train and dart down a different path to avoid being caught up in conversation with a neighbor.  

Mr. Bill took a piece of paper out of his old truck and handed it to me. “I’m a writer,” he said.  

Interesting, I thought to myself. I had just two days before been given an all-expenses paid gift to go to my first writer’s conference. After writing privately for years, some friends were encouraging me to take my writing to the next level, making it available to a wider audience. 

I had been praying earnestly for God’s guidance in this new endeavor.

Mr. Bill told me his story. “I wrote this poem one night many years ago. I couldn’t sleep, and the Lord told me to get a pen and paper, and He would give me the words.”

He grinned wide as he confessed, “I argued with Him, because you see, I was just a farm boy growing up. I could clean the barn and pull a stubborn mule across the field, but I was no writer. The Good Lord won in the end. I have been sharing this poem with people every day since.”

My eyes grew moist as he recounted the stories of people he had encouraged and helped over the years as he faithfully shared his words and listened to their troubles.  

I read the poem, titled, “One Step Beyond the Cross”. Incredulously, I thought to myself, This man has one written work. And with that one work he has been more faithful than I have with twenty years of writing.

About that time he interrupted my convicting thoughts and looked straight at me, saying, “Your words are not your own. They belong to God, and He has given them to you for others. They were not meant to sit in journals on a shelf (what???? how did he know???). You must give them away.”

I heard the message, loud and clear.

Mr. Bill commissioned me that day: 

Step out from fear to faithfulness. Your words are not your own; they are given to you to give away to others

At age 94, Mr. Bill had one published work to his name. He was faithful with that one gift, and had given it freely to others. He was not cowering in fear of rejection, or towering in pride. He was just persisting with the offering, praising the One who gave the words.

I was a new writer about to take my own step of faith, trembling between fear of failure and fear of success. 

My focus was on myself. My writing, my future, my acceptance, my rejection.  My words.

It had not occurred to me that my words were not my own. That they were a gift to be given away to others.

You might be fearful like I was, afraid to take that step from writing for yourself to writing for others. Like me, perhaps you have felt anxious at the thought of offering what has been a private craft, a personal outlet, to a public audience who may accept or reject your gifts of words.  

Take courage. What you think is your own is really only something you have first received.  Give the words away. Wrap them up, tie them nicely, nestle them in grace and confidence.  But give them.

Your words are not your own, anyway.

I am so thankful I took the time for that chat one late afternoon in the grocery store parking lot.  Mr. Bill gave me the gift of his words, and I stepped out from fear to faithfulness in my own writing.

What has inspired you to take the step from fear to faithfulness in writing? Please share your story with me.