Although we couldn’t meet in the same room due to social distancing, I absolutely loved this conversation with my friend, Bethany Guthrie. In this episode, we talk about everything from chickens, to music, to parenting a child on the autism spectrum. I appreciate Bethany’s fresh and honest perspective about both worship and parenting, and I came away from this conversation encouraged. I think you will too.
Bethany grew up with a love of music and can play many instruments. In this interview, we discuss some of the music that has been influential in her life. She talks about how music engages all of her senses and how playing the piano has not only helped her express her emotions but also helps with managing anxiety. Bethany explains that at one point in her life performing was a way to show off, but, after becoming a Christian, playing music became a way for her to worship and show who God is.
Bethany also shares in this episode about her experience of parenting a son with autism. She talks about walking through the diagnosis process and explains not only some of the signs of autism but also some of the unique gifts that her son brings to the world. Although she hasn’t always liked the phrase, “it takes a village,” Bethany says that, when it comes to raising a child on the autism spectrum, it really does take a village. She has found speech and occupational therapy to be incredibly helpful for her son and explains that having a brother has been one of the most helpful therapeutic interventions for him.
If something about this conversation resonates with you, please share this podcast episode or comment below today’s show notes. You can also join the conversation on PRN’s Facebook page.
It’s been a long day at work, and you are relieved to be in the car driving home. As you pull into the driveway and park your car, you realize that you have no recollection of the last 15 minutes of your commute. Were you driving on autopilot?
On Sunday morning, you find yourself sitting in the church pew, twenty minutes into the pastor’s sermon. He just made his third sermon point, but looking down, you discover that you never wrote down his second point. Instead, you were thinking about what you were going to have for lunch.
Maybe you find yourself cuddled up on the couch, reading a book before bed. Your mind wanders, and when you come back to the book, you realize that you’ve been scanning and re-scanning the same paragraph for some time.
Sound familiar? Our minds love to wander. Often it feels like work to make them sustain attention. In a world of faster and faster technology, our brains are being trained how to work more quickly, multitask more efficiently, and sustain attention for smaller and smaller amounts of time. It seems we are losing the art of deep focus.
The Gift of Focus
Interestingly, there is a growing body of neuroscience research to support the importance of focused attention. Concentrating or focusing deeply is a practice that is incredibly healthy and helpful. You could almost think of it as fertilizer for the brain. Focused attention is a key part of mindfulness, and thankfully because of neuroplasticity, we can train ourselves to get better and better at it.
In fact, you have much more control over your own attention than you think you do. Try this:
Bring your focus upward, until you find a focal point on the ceiling. Stare at it for 10 seconds.
Now bring your attention downward, to your feet. Take note of them: Are you wearing socks or shoes? What color are they?
Now bring your attention to your breath. Focus on how you are filling your lungs slowly and then gently exhaling. Do you see your chest rising and falling?
Our minds are always paying attention to something. It just so happens that much of the time, what we are paying attention to isn’t what is currently unfolding in front of us. Curt Thompson, MD, and author of The Soul of Shame, encourages his readers to “pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.” Where do your thoughts drift when your mind is operating on autopilot?
How can you increase your ability to sustain attention?
There are many mental health benefits to increasing the ability to sustain focus and attention, and there are a myriad of practical ways to practice increasing this capacity. To test your own attention span, try this exercise:
Focus on an object in the room, any object will do. Now, try to focus only on that object for one minute. Whenever you notice your attention drifting, try to bring it back to focusing on the object. (Pause your reading and really try it!)
Did you try it? Now, be honest: how many seconds did it take for your thoughts to drift? Was it 5, 10, or 15 seconds? If you made it to 30, you’re doing pretty well for a first try!
This exercise is not made to emphasize how bad you are at focusing, rather it’s to practice increasing your ability to bring your thoughts back into focus. Our thoughts and attention like to drift, but being able to bring them back is the key. Over time you will notice that you are able to focus for longer and longer spans of time without your thoughts drifting.
Personally, I find that focusing on objects is difficult. For me, focusing on music, or choosing a word or phrase to focus on comes much more easily. Isn’t it interesting then, that Scripture often mentions meditating on God’s Word? The idea of meditating on God’s Word is repeated often throughout the Psalms.
Choosing a phrase of Scripture on which to focus and meditate is an incredible way to not only train your brain, but to feed your spiritual life as well. For more ideas on creative ways to meditate on Scripture, listen to my PRN Podcast episode about this subject.
Pause, Renew, Nextidea: I have recently found a Scriptural meditation app that I feel captures not only the heart of this blog post’s intent, but also is in line with the whole Pause, Renew, Next concept. I have found it helpful myself, and would love to pass it on to you. John Eldredge’s Pause app, is a free, easy way to schedule in a moment to pause and reflect during your busy day. It has one, three, five, and ten minute options, and walks the listener through meditative prayer and Scripture readings. If you’re needing an easy way to begin practicing focused attention from a Scriptural perspective, the Pause app may be a great place to start.
May you find peace and joy as you take moments to focus deeply and allow your mind and body to rest and renew.
I love biography episodes because, although the saints can no longer come in to be interviewed as guests on the podcast, their lives have much to teach us. I choose women whose stories interest me but also those whose faith remained strong through testing and adversity. Today’s episode is about the life of Phillis Wheatley, and she definitely fits that bill.
The name Phillis Wheatley is well-known, and chances are you’ve learned about her in your U.S. History class or perhaps in a literature class. She was a famous poet in the late 1700’s. She also happened to be enslaved for much of her writing career. Her story is complicated and tragic but also courageous and amazing.
In this episode I have given a brief synopsis of Phillis Wheatley’s life and career accomplishments. If you find that you’re interested in learning more about her life, there are many books and biographies from which to choose. The three sources I used for this podcast are listed below:
I’ll be honest: at the beginning of social distancing I did not feel fear; instead I felt relief. You see, between shuttling two of my children back and forth to school, homeschooling the other two, and taking them to appointments, speech therapy, homeschool co-op, and extracurricular activities, I was feeling tired and ready for spring break. Even being given a reprieve from going to church felt like receiving a small vacation. Although I love our church and the community we find there, we usually spend half or more of our Sabbath away from home. Add to all of this juggling a part-time job, and my life was feeling very, very full. The truth is, I was utterly exhausted. Thus, social distancing at first felt like being granted a stay-cation.
Ironically, I have formed an entire podcast and blog around the idea of pausing and renewing. In doing so, I wasn’t striving to be a hypocrite. In fact, I know that I am preaching to myself more than anyone else. Still, it’s clear that pausing and renewing are exactly what I have been needing and not managing to attain often enough.
Many years ago, I read a book by Dannah Gresh in which she explained that King David found himself trapped in a cave many times throughout his life. Each time he found himself in a cave, there was a refining process that occurred in his life. It seemed that his “cave situations” were due to two very different scenarios. In one scenario he made bad and sinful choices that caused him to become trapped in a cave. In the other scenario, he found himself trapped in a cave due to circumstances outside of his control.
In our current life scenario, while experiencing a global pandemic, I believe all of us can find ourselves in scenario number two. Due to circumstances outside of our own control, we find ourselves trapped inside our own homes.
It seems that a refining process may be at work in many of our lives; at least I am aware of it in my own life. I’ve been thinking about this cave analogy as the first week of social distancing turned into two weeks, and now three weeks. As an extrovert, pieces of my “stay-cation” are now beginning to get old. I have found myself seeking more contact with people this week via Voxer, Skype, and Messenger. I have noticed that my irritation threshold is much lower than it was in the beginning. I’ve found myself feeling bored and restless, as many of the distractions that keep me busy and hurried are taking a hiatus.
On the positive side, as social distancing continues, I am finding that I have more opportunity to choose quality time with my family. I have more time to read. I have more time to garden, go on family walks, or enjoy the peace of my goldfish pond. I also have more time to train my kids on the things that I usually brush off: cooking with them, watching their trampoline tricks, and reading a novel aloud as a family.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all “Little House on the Prairie” at my house. Having four boys at home all of the time means the noise, chaos, and aggression factor in our home is at an all-time high. Brothers love hard and fight harder. Even this however, may be a blessing in disguise. What an opportunity to model confession, reconciliation, and forgiveness! Not perfectly mind you, I have lost my cool multiple times already this week. Still, if my kids need to learn how to forgive and manage their anger, I’d rather they do it now as children than have to learn it later on in life when the stakes are higher.
I have also realized anew how much I seek stimulation from my phone. Quiet is uncomfortable for me. I would much rather browse Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter than sit alone with my thoughts. I very quickly turn on podcasts or Youtube when I have moments of downtime. I have even bought Disney+ to help keep all of us entertained and occupied for the month. While none of these pursuits are inherently bad, I am becoming more and more aware that stillness often feels like boredom to me. Quiet is uncomfortable, and it takes practice to enjoy it.
I guess what I’m saying is this: we have all been put in a refining situation, but we can choose how much we will allow ourselves to be refined. Isaiah 30:15, pictured above, is one of my favorite verses. The Lord entreats the people of Israel to come to Him. He tells them that in returning and rest they will find salvation and in quietness and trust they will find their strength.
Returning, rest, quietness, and trust, these are the attributes I want to develop during this time at home. These are attributes that, in Christ, move us away from fear, hurry, and worry, and towards renewal. I am still admittedly a work in progress on this front, but these are my personal hopes for my mandatory “stay-cation.”
Pause: Take a deep belly breath and slowly exhale. Meditate on Isaiah 30:15. What about this passage stands out to you?
Renew: What are you noticing about yourself during this time of social distancing? How has your life changed? Where do you notice you’re turning for comfort and entertainment?
Next: How can you begin to cultivate the attributes of Returning, Rest, Quietness, and Trust, during this time of social distancing? Take time to pray and journal about it.