ARLINGTON?There wasn’t a dramatic conversion experience for Lisa Whelchel?just the realization in the heart of a 10-year-old child that she wanted to hold on forever to the feeling she got when she entered the little Baptist church down the road from her house.
Anyone older than 35 remembers Whelchel as the preppy and perky Blair Warner of the television series “Facts of Life,” which ended its nine-year run in 1988. Those younger than 35, mothers in particular, perhaps know her best for the advice and encouragement she dispenses as an author and popular speaker.
Whelchel, now 44, a mother of three and married to a pastor, spoke to the annual Women’s Luncheon during the SBTC meeting.
Although she was immersed in Hollywood and lived for weeks at a time away from the influences of home and church, Whelchel did not go the way of many child actors. She would later credit her stable life to the contentment she had in her faith.
Drawing from experiences in her own life, Whelchel told those gathered for the luncheon to fill any perceived void in their lives with God alone. When an individual becomes a Christian they are filled with the Holy Spirit. But, she added, we must, each day, continue to be filled in order to be led by Jesus and be content.
Her salvation came in a Sunday School room. Whelchel said she and a friend had attended because they “wanted to dress up and go somewhere.” She kept attending?first because of the donuts and orange juice but eventually because of the spiritual food she was being fed.
“Every time I walked through those church doors, I felt like my heart was home,” she recalled.
Her Sunday School teacher told Whelchel that feeling was the love of Jesus and she could have that feeling at home as well and led her in the prayer for salvation. It wasn’t until years later that Whelchel understood the concepts of sin and grace.
By the time she was a teenager, Whelchel, a native Texan now living in the Dallas area, was an active member of her church youth group and a main character on a popular TV show. Going through the trials and travails of adolescence is hard enough, she said, without having to do it on television.
During a two-year stint on the show, Whelchel had a very noticeable weight gain. Producers of the show strongly urged her to lose the weight or lose her role. They brought healthy food to the set, hired an exercise coach, and even resorted to humiliation. Each morning a scale was brought to the offices and, in front of staff members, Whelchel had to step on the scale to show any progress in her weight loss.
She was devastated and wanted to quit. Back at her youth group in Texas, Whelchel shared her feelings with a friend who told her God would be disappointed if she gave up. Then he asked her something she had never considered. Whelchel was asked how much time she spent with the Lord.
Having read her Bible and prayed daily since she was 10, the answer was obvious, she said.
But daily devotionals were not what God was seeking. Whelchel was told to go back to Los Angeles and eat whatever she wanted and get up 30 minutes earlier than usual and spend time with God.
Living in a one-room apartment with her grandmother, the only place Whelchel could be alone with God was the bathroom. So sitting on the toilet (“With the lid down!” she said), she opened her Bible and began to wonder what she was supposed to do that she had not already done in her time with God. But over time she began to “get it.”
“I could just feel the presence of the Lord right there. I was feeding on the Word of God. There was something about it that was filling me up. Those empty places I was trying to fill up with food.”
Her time alone with God became more than Scripture reading and prayer. It became a conversation with the Lord and the “time with God” her friend had inquired about had been transformed, as was her life. No longer did food fill the spaces left empty. She was filled with God and found contentment.
The pounds did not melt away with this newfound relationship but over the years, it guided her life and gave Whelchel a greater sense of God’s will in her life, she said.
When “The Facts of Life” went off the air, Whelchel assumed she would keep acting?for the glory of God. Being a popular actress and a Christian gave her a venue for reaching out to teenagers and she hoped to continue that ministry.
But God had other plans, she said. The acting jobs did not come. And the one reading she did get?a shoo-in for the part, according to her manager?she bombed. Sitting in her van outside the producer’s office Whelchel asked God why. The response was not audible but clearly understood.
Anyone, she recalled God saying, can share the gospel.
“I can only use you to be a wife and mother.”
From that point on, Whelchel threw herself into her new role. She read every book and applied all of the tenets with no results. When she cried out to God for help, she learned, again, that she had to let God fill her. What was even more difficult, Whelchel admitted, she had to learn to let go of her children and let God take control.
Hanging on to her children, keeping them tightly reined in, was a response to her love and care for her kids. Trying to control something or someone, she said, is a response of love, albeit misguided. When she gave her children over to God, it was his wisdom and his guidance that began to influence her parenting.
“My answer was not to hold on tighter but to give control over to him.”
Addressing the audience directly, Whelchel said, “There is something you’re holding onto so tightly because you care so much. We can care best by letting go.”