A Blog by Jennifer Aulthouse

A heart for those who want more of God. A desperate plea for those who don't.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Redefining Beauty

I believe I've been led to make peace with something that has held an element of psychological and emotional torture over me off and on for years, and has literally followed behind me everywhere I've went:

My rear end.

Well, not just my rear end, but I'll let it represent any and all other anatomical members (as well as my weight and clothing size) whose performance in proclaiming beauty has been questionable, in my estimate. I'm not "making peace" in the sense that I'm accepting this conceding as a defeat, though. Because that still nurtures the mindset that my physique isn't good enough, and that is so, so not where God wants me to go with this. This is about changing the standard of physical beauty I believe for some reason I need to attain or otherwise be considered visually deficient. I had it for awhile, kind of...or at least I felt like the majority of me had met the standard and it was enough to cover what maybe wasn't quite meeting the bar. But over the last year the relationship between my pants and my waist has become exclusive...they're just so close.

This isn't to say that I don't technically need to lose a few pounds, because I do, and how much really is "a few" is debatable depending on which doctor I see or what BMI chart is being read. But the pursuit of physical beauty is not meant to be taking up the mental space and energy it has been over the last year since I've gained this extra weight. Next fall will bring me a couple of free hours three days a week, and I had been planning to dedicate that time to the gym, just hoping I won't get any larger from now until then. But a few weeks ago when in a moment of mental stillness I was actually listening for the Lord, the words spoken to my heart were for me to release that planned gym time to Him. I am to stop chasing the beauty I think I need like it's some wild, intoxicating potion that will affirm my value as a woman, and start considering just what I am now as God's amazing standard of beauty for me, His created woman.

I need to shift my focus from "losing weight" to "being healthy". When the goal was losing weight, I counted calories, even to my detriment by doing things like avoiding milk and nuts. But now I will chuck the calorie counter and simply eat what I know is good for me. And accept that having an ice cream cone with my family on a warm summer evening is good for me. This is weird thinking for me because my problem with food has always been that I like it, and I like lots of what I like. I've never really had to convince myself to eat ice cream before. But I also haven't done so without having a scoop of guilt, too.

So instead of seeing areas of visual failure when looking in the mirror lately, I've made the decision to focus on the very real beauty of my shape. The world is against me in this...even our Wii calls me fat. Verbally. But the voice of the Lord has before spoken words affirming the incredible beauty - all kinds of beauty - He's made me with, and as with all things, it is simply a matter of faith to claim it in every moment. If I can honor Him with the temple He created by making healthy choices in eating, and exercising when He opens up the time, simply for this purpose, the beauty I will carry from His presence gracing my being will far surpass any display of visual splendor I could aspire to of my own.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Passions, Missions, and Fears

Here's why I am afraid of failure: so much of it is out of my hands.
Here's why I am afraid of success: so much of it is out of my hands.

As usual, the fear of something is actually about the fear of something else entirely. I've been making lots of lists about myself lately, as I'm in a new phase of life here and I want to be aware of my motives. So here are a few of my fears:

1. Some monster getting a hold of my kids.
2. The kids being lost and my not knowing where they are or how to get to them.
3. The kids having to deal with the death of either myself, my husband, or worse, both of us.
4. The death of my husband.
5. Something coming into my marriage which drives a wedge between my husband and myself.
6. Not having the money to maintain our home.
7. Losing my sight, speech, hearing, or the ability to walk and get around as I have now.
8. Having more children. (Yes. This is a real fear for me.)
9. Being attacked by a man.
10. Relational disconnection from the people I love.

Looking at this list, I'm sure some of these are duplicates for you, some you can at least relate to, and some may seem very off the wall and perhaps even shallow. Of course, no one wants their kids to be harmed, and for obvious reasons: the thought of them being hurt and terrorized would bring monumental strife to the heart of most parents, I would hope. That's completely legitimate to our parental makeup. But I recognized a deeper theme running through all these fears and the many others I have. It's really about dealing with a loss of control. Even a fear of great physical pain . . . somewhere in the midst of it being about pain it's also about losing control over biological peace and functionality. The fear of invasion (home, bodily, symbolically in terms of marriage) is about losing control not just of my sense of safety, but of the freedom to relax. Of having more children? Having to abandon even more of myself . . . losing control of my independence.

Another element of this spiritual archaeology of late is why I really want a writing career. I attended a writing conference about a month ago, and came back with a lot of stuff to sort through in regards to getting started and what direction to take. I know the kind of writing I will most likely end up doing and I know my strengths, but I don't think I had really uncovered why I was doing this, besides believing that this is what God made me for, and that Penn State University gave me a piece of paper that says I know how to do it. I do believe all of this. God's shown this to me in many ways. But I needed to get as specific as I could with myself regarding my motives and what was driving me to head in the directions I desired to take.

One of the speakers at the conference was author James Watkins. He gave a message on the story of Joseph and chasing a dream. One point he made that stood out to me was "don't confuse your dream with your coat". The dream is the vision God gives me of the mission He desires to use me for. The coat includes the elements of status and whatnot that may accompany the dream. I saw that I needed to go back even further and define to whatever degree I could the dream that I have, which honestly, I still wasn't quite sure of. But I did know what I told people it was, so I figured I'd start my digging there. But even this needed dividing.

I want to write. Why? I know I'm meant to.
A. Practically speaking:
1. I've been acing spelling tests and English assignments since elementary school.
2. I have a degree in English, specializing in writing, and I know I've got some talent therein.
3. I have a way with words. Sometimes a destructive and hurtful way, but a way nonetheless.
4. Sometimes I actually even enjoy writing.

B. Spiritually speaking:
1. God brings great clarity to my life when I write. I don't usually even understand what I'm going through myself until I get it down on paper and reflect on what has just come out. It is then that I feel closest to Him as I can feel my spirit being ministered to.
2. I've been witness to how words He's put in my mind and heart have ministered to someone else right where they are struggling, oftentimes without my knowing it beforehand at all.
3. I have a tremendous drive within me to communicate.
4. I have a tremendous drive within me to share myself.

I want to have a writing career and/or write a book. Why? Yikes, this is a bit mortifying . . .
1. I want to have some tangible piece of confirmation that I've done something important.
2. I want to have some tangible piece of confirmation that this indeed is God's plan for me.
3. I want to have some tangible piece of confirmation that I have something special and of value in me.
4. I want to have some tangible piece of confirmation that I am useful to God and others.
5. I want to have some tangible piece of confirmation that someone found worth in getting to know me.
6. I want to have my intelligence and talent validated.
7. I want to feel like my life measures up with my many highly-successful friends' lives.
8. Yes, basically . . . I just want something to point to that says I'm important.

So my dream as it is amounts to finding a way to use my talent to feel better about myself. Somehow I don't think this is what God has in mind when He gives us a vision. It's using Him, really. Here's what I'm good at: now give me a life where I'm filled by basking in my greatness. The needs I'm feeling aren't wrong, but I'm really not trusting in God's love for me if I'm attempting to manipulate Him and the world with my gifts in order to feel loved.

I knew I needed to revise this and strip everything that isn't pure away from the dream. One thing the speakers at the writing conference kept repeating was this need for a "mission statement"; that is, a purpose that anchors my writing. What is my ultimate goal when I write?

I've been stuck on this one. Most Christian writers pick a verse of scripture that is meaningful to them and tweak the words a little to reflect it in a writerly way, and I thought about doing this, too, but nothing was coming to me. I guess I don't really feel the excitement of a mission surrounding me when I'm writing. So I thought and thought and thought about this, and came to the simple conclusion of why we are here at all. Why are we even created? Why does God want to have a relationship with us at all?

To know Him. He just wants us to know Him, to hear Him, and to love Him. The rest of His work for us just stems from these things.

There are three passions that burn within me, of things I just feel like I was made to do and have an irresistible draw towards, even if the processes themselves are hard and loathesome: writing, speaking, and singing. The reasons for the joy I receive when participating in any of these activities are vast and complex, holy, pure, and yet at times diluted and deluded. The draw towards using writing to fill my own gaping emotional holes can also be found in speaking, singing, and doing anything else, too. Your baggage is your baggage, and it travels with you; even if you end up in Phoenix and the bags are in Miami, they are still your bags. The only way to travel lightly is to check the bags with the Lord.

So, while I haven't gotten to the point yet of dissecting the whys and whats behind speaking and singing, I can assume that the patterns will be pretty much the same. But there lies beneath all of this junk a greater goal, a greater passion that supersedes the others, even if some days it takes a strength beyond my own to believe in it. But I do. And that passion is for the Lord. My flesh is stronger than I am, but not stronger than the One who is in me, and I know that because He made me and He deposited a dream within me, whatever vision I have will ultimately be conformed identically to His vision.

I've come up with my mission statement and I've defined my dream. Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales, was another speaker at the writing conference. He spoke on the death of his dream. He learned in the process that if he truly is surrendered entirely to God's dream for him, than "where I am in five years is none of my business".

So my mission statement is simply this: in writing, to know God more; in speaking, to hear God more; in singing, to love God more. And my new dream is to be totally abandoned to His control for all things in my life. If I can stay focused on these, then I am already an amazing success.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bible Grouch

My daughter is almost 4. She, my son, and I attend a Bible study on Wednesdays, and last week the children learned about Jesus helping some fishermen catch fish (and how they would become fishers of men). However, here is her interpretation of the lesson:

Daughter: We talked about when Jesus went fishing with that boy from The Brady Bunch.
Me (slightly puzzled): Who?
Daughter: Peter!

And I knew that the whole morning she was envisioning Jesus hanging out with Peter Brady, probably also enrobed in egregiously-colored/patterned bell-bottoms, because Jesus would want Peter to feel like he was with a friend. Then I got to wondering how the episodes would've gone with Jesus actually as a character. Of course, there wouldn't be any squares left to include him in the opening song. Anyway, this really isn't the point of my message here. But speaking of Jesus . . .

A notion has thrust itself upon my brain this week, and it is not at all one I'm comfortable in acknowledging either to myself or anyone else . . . and that is that I'm a better mother than I think I am. And no, I'm not going to provide the evidence either for or against this conclusion, as that will only bring forth a spirit of comparison. More, it's just this total discomfort in accepting myself when I'm less than perfect. I'm not talking about burned pork chops or forgetting to put my son's library books into his backpack on library day. I mean perfection in character, in service, in motive, even. The stuff that really matters.

I fall into the trap of being a Bible Grouch sometimes. I define a Bible Grouch as one who is burdened to point out all the reasons why we don't deserve the grace offered us, in whatever situation in which the Bible is expositing on, and in whatever situation in life we find ourselves. Bible Grouches are usually very correct in their declarations. We do, absolutely, need to remember the depths to which we have all fallen. But some people, like myself - and like all Bible Grouches, I dare say - have such a hard time ever looking away from the length of that fall. Somewhere there is a place of perfect balance in which a person is always aware of this and yet is no longer a prisoner of negative perception; a place beautifully perched on the strong arms of knowing there is no limit to the depth of truth that we are not worthy, yet so exponentially worth it, at all costs to the God of the universe. I know for myself I rarely find that place to mentally reside in as I function, just as I'm sure the Bible Grouch as a template figure hasn't either. I get so worried I'll forget my fallenness that I don't ever forget my fallenness. I think it's just a self-avowed attempt to avoid arrogance. But what is arrogance and what really causes arrogance? Isn't it just the "spirit of me-ness" and believing I have the ability within myself to rise above my "spirit of me-ness"? It's paradoxical. There's a way of knowing I don't deserve to be in heaven, and yet still moving past the gates, into the city itself, making my home there, believing that I've been invited in to stay. My name is written in the book . . . I don't have to keep checking to make sure it hasn't been erased. Sometimes faith is just choosing to believe in faith.

I went through a process of great stripping-away a couple of years ago. This was a stripping of the heart, stuff that God was clearly asking me to concede to Him. Things no one could see or understand . . . things I had believed were promises He made to me, things I believed were necessary for me to feel alive in my world, and the kicker was that they were all things He showed me were good. Good things He was asking me to willingly abandon. It put me into a real funk because it felt like God was doing this for no other reason than to either punish me for my priorities being off (which they were), or just to be mean, or at worst, that He just was not interested enough in any of it to care anymore. It was a time when I was forced to sort through my emotions and beliefs about God, to get to the pit where motive is formed, and after months of seeing layer after layer of filth and negativity and self-centeredness, and feeling extreme loathing for myself, I received a priceless gift: I got to see a reflection. My gift was getting to see that a mirror has been installed in my heart, a mirror that is pointed towards the Lord, so that when He looks at me He sees His own, and He sees Himself. It doesn't mean that things don't exist between He and the mirror, things that bring dirt and darkness, and cloud the reflection so much that nothing underneath all of that can be seen, but it doesn't negate the existence of the mirror. I saw the purity in my heart that lay beneath all these layers of pride and selfish ambition, the purity that confirms I really do love Jesus, and I really do believe in Him and in the best about Him. And the greatest desire living within me is that I would be like Him in character and deed. That desire is what He sees when He looks at me, though the layers of worldly living become caked on. But He gently holds the mirror in His hands, and wipes it clean with His blood so He can see what He knows is already there. I believe this is a fundamental step in the journey to living in grace - letting Jesus show you that your heart has indeed been made new. It is what I stake my claim to when I can't find anything worthwhile about myself as a person that would make Him want me around, when the Bible Grouch inside keeps reminding me of how I've failed to earn my spiritual keep again. Conviction comes from God. But I don't really think it's conviction if it makes you feel like you've got to work harder to be lovable.

See, a mirror doesn't have to understand the "why" of anything, it just reflects the truth of what is there.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Grumpy Troll

I can't wait until Saturday.

My son is about to turn six, and Saturday is the family birthday party. His grandparents, who live in "a galaxy far, far way" (aka Indiana), mailed his gift early, which I then intercepted before he could see it. It happens to be a "Cars" race track with a remote-controlled Lightning McQueen, and he is a huge "Cars" fan. This will go over so monumentally well.

Here's the fun part: A few days ago, my son happened to see this item featured in a toy catalog, and he has been as gloomy about not having a substantial regular income as I've ever seen in a person. He's been staring at the picture in the catalog with such longing, intermittently smiling, as no doubt he is imagining playing with such an awesome toy, and frowning with frustration. If only he knew what I knew . . .

Saturday, when he gets to open the massive package to find his dream-come-true waiting for him to partake in all its delights, my eyes will be fixed on his face, just so I can visually memorialize his sheer joy. There is nothing sweeter than witnessing joy saturate my children.

It was this past summer that I really began to deeply ponder the strong desire I feel to bless my children. My husband and I went to Disney World for a few days alone, and as we walked through the gift shops I found myself imagining the kids playing with the toys, inhaling the character-shaped treats, proudly sporting the t-shirts, etc., and I just wanted to buy everything I knew they would love. I didn't, of course. Besides the obvious of not having the luggage space and Disney already claiming enough of our money simply in eating every day, we just can't give our kids everything they want. It's not good for us to have everything we want. It's in our nature to take it for granted. As it is, the one toy we picked out for each of them were -- after about three days, and still are, many months later -- rarely played with. We forget our blessings, and bask instead in the spirit of entitlement until the next exciting one comes along.

This must be what God feels . . . so desperately longing to bless us with the good things that we pine for in our hearts . . . but knowing we just can't handle most of them, at least not in the timing or quantity we long for. I know it's true of me. And I know it's true of my kids.

I know they think I'm a grumpy troll living under the "Bridge-to-All-Things-Fun-and-Yummy". When they approach the bridge, out I come with my pointy "stick of rules" and snarly "voice of practicality" and keep them from crossing into a land that holds their every fulfilled longing. Their only hope is to tip-toe across while I'm asleep or intoxicated with some spirit of holiday festiveness. But they don't understand what I'm protecting them from when I don't let them cross - from things as simple as tooth decay and extreme clutter, to the invisible, spiritual things like disillusionment and idolatry. They don't see. In their minds they only see what they cannot have, and look at me - the trollish gate-keeper - as the one not providing what they can't fathom wouldn't be good for them to have. And they overreact, of course, but this is precisely the point . . . they don't remember the many times I've let them cross the bridge and shown them personally delights of the land they would never find on their own. They don't remember.

Of course, I am not a troll. I am, to a small degree, in charge of the bridge, but am most certainly their physical representation of who's in charge of the bridge. And I have to accept that in their eyes, they will look upon me as one who claims to love them more than anyone in the whole world, yet doesn't seem to give them access to what they would define as displays of that so-called love. Hopefully, one day they will understand. But that hope is in the land on the other side of my bridge.

But on Saturday, I will get to witness my son cross the bridge. The moment will surely fade away for him as life goes on, but it won't ever for me.

That must be how God feels...