So much good can happen in our brains and body when we focus on positive thoughts. Unfortunately, our brains are wired in such a way that they like to ruminate more on the negative. Dwelling on the good sometimes requires intentionality.
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
Colossians 3:2 ESV
In the month of November, I want to focus on setting our minds on things above and choosing to dwell on the good. In this first reflection episode, we will talk about delighting in beauty and look at how beauty impacts our brains.
I’d love to hear from you about where you’re finding beauty these days. Please comment under today’s show notes or find me on Instagram or Facebook!
Below are the articles referenced in today’s podcast episode:
My oldest son and I sit in the van, biding time and creeping forward. It’s 3:14, and the school bell will soon ring, releasing my three youngest boys from their school day. Here we sit, just like we do every Monday, waiting in the school pick-up line. I glance at my dash board and see that I have made an error in judgment. I should have stopped for gas on my way here. The van is not yet on empty, but it will be by tomorrow morning, when I am rushing to get everyone back to school.
I inwardly sigh, preparing myself for the collective groan I will hear from the backseat when I announce we have to stop for gas. The whole carload of kids who are so ready to go home will not be happy about this little detour.
I take a deep breath and say out loud to my oldest son, “Well, it looks like we’re going to need to run by the gas station on the way home. I’m almost out of gas.”
Just as I had predicted, my son was visibly disappointed. “I just want to go home,” he said. “I’ve been gone all day, and I’m tired of being in the car.”
Yes, believe me, I get it, I thought. Going to get gas is not at the top of my joy list either. I agreed aloud with him, and then, somehow in the middle of my complaint of agreement, my narrative shifted.
I just love it when that happens.
“You know,” I said to my son, “having a car is a privilege, but cars can’t run without gas.” As a fourteen-year-old, preparing to get his drivers permit next year, this seemed an apt lesson. Fully in Mom mode now, I continued my mini lecture. “With all privilege comes responsibility. It’s part of the way it works.”
Wow. Maybe I needed to preach to myself. Sometimes I surprise myself with words of wisdom that flow in my counseling office or when I’m parenting. Often I find when that happens, I needed to hear the lesson more than the person I was speaking to. This particular afternoon, I have no idea how much of an impact the lesson made on my son, but it certainly helped to shift my thinking.
Just earlier that morning the Lord had reminded me how truly blessed I am. Sure, I complain a lot about my kids: the hard work they require, the little gratitude they show, the many messes they make, the referee they require me to be to break up fights all the time. Still, they are my blessings: full of joy and life. Yes, I long for peace and quiet, but I would never trade the life they’ve given me for one of silence. The noise and work of motherhood is just the gas pump price.
My attitude about my job is similar. I love my job. Well, most of the time. A year of counseling virtually has had me question my calling a time or two, but at the end of the day, sitting with people and hearing their stories is a tremendous privilege. Whether I see a client for one visit or for years, I had the honor of being a part of their life, of their journey, and of their healing. Paperwork, videoconferencing, and phone calls are not the joy of my job. Sometimes, these tasks make me tired, yet I would never trade the privilege of counseling for the gas pump price of the paperwork that comes with it.
I think you get the idea. The minutia of complaints we can find to focus on are the gas station stops that come with the gift of being able to drive. Driving gives us freedom. It gives us independence, and it helps us get where we want to go. However, this responsibility also comes with tune ups, frequent refuelings, insurance prices, and the occasional flat tire. Personally, I spend a lot of life trying to avoid the hard things. Sometimes even dreading the hard things. This outlook can keep me from enjoying life on the road.
Driving the road of life comes with a lot of potholes and gas station stops, but let’s not forget to enjoy the wind in our hair and the reason we’re driving in the first place. What an absolute privilege it is to be alive and placed in the roles God has given us: our jobs, our families, our ministries, and our friendships. Like me, I hope you take the time to preach to yourself and refocus on the gifts you’ve been given, rather than the hardships that accompany it.
Now, remind me of that lesson next week when I need to fill up again.
Pause, Renew, Next: Be still and take a deep, cleansing breath. Take time to meditate, pray, or journal as you reflect. What have you recently found yourself complaining about in life? How are those responsibilities part of the privilege of the gifts you’ve been given in life? How can you shift your thinking and find gratitude this week? As you think about it, offer these findings as prayers of thanks.
May we have eyes to see the gifts we’ve been given rather than just the work that accompanies the gifts.
If you’ve been a reader of my blog very long, you may have noticed by now that I tend to write frequently about animals and nature. It seems that I reflect best while observing my natural surroundings. It’s unsurprising then, that today’s blog post starts out with a story about birds.
A birdfeeder hangs off the corner of my back deck. My favorite chair in our living room is parked right next to a window where I have the best view of this feeder. One of my favorite things about summer is sitting in this chair during the sunrise hour, watching the hummingbirds cheerfully visit their feeder. In the winter, I am less consistent in my bird feeding, but I have an old bird feeder that I sometimes hang in the same spot on my back deck. A couple of weeks ago, while sitting in my chair and observing all of the birds in the backyard, I decided that I would start using my winter birdfeeder again. It has been a dreary year, and inviting colorful birds to feed outside the window seemed like the perfect addition to my own soul-care routine this winter.
So, I pulled out our old birdfeeder, bought some birdseed, and filled it up. We were almost immediately visited by tufted titmice and chickadees. A few cardinals and bluebirds have also started frequenting the feeder. As I saw these beautiful and cheerful little birds flitting about outside, I felt pleased with myself.
A few days ago, I went out on the back deck and found, to my dismay, a dead chickadee, lying on its back, frozen and lifeless. I was first shocked, then surprised, then deflated. It seems that on a sunny day, the little bird ran into the glass of our sunroom, killing itself on impact.
Suddenly, my enthusiasm for my new birdfeeder waned. I found myself questioning whether I had done the right thing by putting a birdfeeder in that location. I mean, I had only wanted to watch the birds. My intentions had been good. I certainly hadn’t meant to lure a little chickadee to its death.
So, yeah, that’s a downer.
Well, granted, it could have happened to anybody. I mean, maybe in the grand scheme of things, it was that chickadee’s time to go. Still, as I thought about it, this scenario felt similar to other disappointments I’ve been experiencing in life.
Often, I go about new ideas with great enthusiasm and good intentions, and very often those endeavors tend to cause more difficulty, disappointment, or strife than I was anticipating. My intentions are good, but the end result is far different than my expectations.
Take, for instance, my great idea this fall to order Misfit Market boxes and introduce my family to new produce and exotic meals. I was genuinely excited about trying new foods and new recipes. I jumped into it with excitement. My children, however, did not share in my enthusiasm. They generously shared their every opinion on the subject with me, and their opinions were rarely gracious. They’re not thankful that I went out of my way to make new foods for them. Their responses are more like, “Yuck, Mom! Why do you keep trying to make meals with these vegetables? Stop getting those Misfit Market boxes!”
I started a podcast with enthusiasm and found myself loving almost every step of the process: from holding encouraging conversations, to editing, to publishing. I really loved almost all of it. Podcasting takes a lot of work, but most of the time it feels totally worth the time and effort. However, over the past year, my listenership has gone down dramatically. The same amount of work and effort is going into the episodes, but due to a pandemic people have less commute time and more virtual learning or work-from-home-time and are less apt to listen to podcasts. My efforts are worthwhile, but the end result is sometimes disappointing.
I could give you a lot of examples, but suffice it to say that I seem to jump headlong into work projects, craft projects, creative ideas, or new parenting strategies, only to find that there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When that happens, I find myself disappointed or disillusioned, which then leads to questioning myself.
So, yes, this blog post is about the death of a chickadee, but it’s really about what to do with disappointment. What do we do when we try really hard and have good intentions but reality doesn’t match up to our expectations?
Well, I’ll tell you what I’m trying to do. I’m reminding myself that I’m not the problem. When things go badly, it’s easy to turn our stinking thinking on ourselves, and begin the blame game.
If only I had been better prepared, it might have turned out differently.
It must be something I’ve done wrong.
Maybe if I was like so-and-so, my kids would be better behaved.
I wonder what people must think of me?
Because this didn’t work out, I must be a failure.
Our negative thoughts may differ depending on the situation and our normal internal dialogue, but the result is the same. We can take natural disappointment and turn it into shame by blaming ourselves.
Instead of believing these negative thoughts when they pop in, I’m trying to be realistic about the situations and grieve my disappointment instead. Goodness, I didn’t plot a chickadee murder. My intentions were good. It’s sad that a bird died, and I can feel sad about it. And, I can leave it at that. I have permission to feel what I need to feel without turning the dialogue into what that must mean about me as a person.
So, my children don’t like new vegetables. It’s okay. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad cook. I’m still introducing them to new foods, and one day they’ll be thankful they had a mother who made them meals. In the meantime, I’m allowed to feel miffed and even angry occasionally that my hard work is unappreciated. And, it doesn’t mean anything about me personally.
So, my podcast isn’t skyrocketing. You know what? Most podcasts aren’t. A global pandemic happened, and that has nothing to do with the quality or content of my podcasts. I can feel disappointed, and I can remember the reasons why I’m producing a podcast to begin with. The purpose has little to do with the number of listeners, but I can still let myself feel disappointed. It’s human and it’s natural. Then, I will just keep on keeping on, recording the next conversation, editing the next episode.
I have permission to grieve, be disappointed, be angry, and be human, and I do not have to turn those feelings into stinking thinking about myself. You don’t either, friend.
So, as an encouragement to you and myself, Galatians 6 says to not grow weary in doing good, for we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Yesterday, as I did my Bible reading, a beautiful blue bird landed right outside the window… Like a sweet little gift from my Father: a reminder that beauty is there to be found. We may not reap the benefits of our good intentions right away, and sometimes we will be disappointed, but we can keep sowing anyway. There is still beauty to be found. So, I will remember that while I watch the little birds out my window.
Pause, Renew, Next: Take a minute to breathe deeply and reflect. In what ways have you experienced disappointment lately about the way something has turned out in your life. What have your thoughts been about that situation? Have you found yourself wrongfully blaming yourself for how it turned out? Give yourself permission this week to feel the emotions you need to feel about that situation. Where you find yourself focusing on negative thoughts associated with the situation, find ways to tell yourself the truth instead. If you want to, find Scripture passages that will help you speak truth to yourself.
May we give ourselves permission to be human and rely on the grace that God extends to us in our own weakness, and may we continue to do good.
I hope the Lord sends you a little bluebird this week too.
Wherever you go, in restaurants, stores, even gas stations, there are background tracks playing. Like elevator music that fades into the periphery of conversation and the din of customers, the songs go mostly unnoticed. Then, a favorite song comes on, and suddenly you are aware that there has been music all along. Our thoughts play in much the same way. All day, every day, we are forming an inner script, creating the narrative of our lives inside the confines of our minds.
Most of the time, we remain blissfully unaware of our thought content. Still, if we considered our thoughts to be like an album playing in the background of our lives, upon turning up the volume, what track would you hear playing in your mind? Some common refrains I hear in my counseling office sound like:
I am never enough.
What if I fail?
What do others think of me?
I hate my body.
The list can go on and on. Each of our minds have specific, go-to, negative tracks that our brains like to play when we feel tired, weak, hurt, discouraged, or lonely. The amazing fact about our mind is that all day, as we think and act, we are wiring and rewiring our brains. The neuronal pathways that “fire” together in our brains also “wire” together. This means that, as we continue to think the same negative thoughts, we are making super pathways for those thoughts in our brains. On the other hand, as we change our thinking patterns, our brains are capable of making new pathways. It’s a completely phenomenal design by our Creator who is in the business of redemption. That is the good news.
The bad news is this: it takes a lot of work. A LOT of work. First, we must become aware of our thought lives. Paying attention to our thinking, or “metathinking,” does not come naturally. It feels strange at first. The process of beginning to change those negative thoughts once we are aware of them is even more difficult. After all, if we truly believe the negative scripts playing in our minds, then with what ammunition are we going to fight them?
Ellie Holcomb has a song, Fighting Words, that I absolutely love. In one short, fun-loving song, she sums up the work of fighting negative thoughts by speaking truth to them. As we begin to challenge the thoughts, rather than believe them every time they present themselves, change begins to occur.
A few years ago, I heard a pastor on the radio teaching about taking our thoughts captive to obey Christ (II Corinthians 10:5). He advocated that the imagery of taking a captive is the language of war. It doesn’t mean gently reprimanding a wayward thought. It means forcefully taking it to the dungeon and chaining it up. We are taking thoughts prisoner. We are reminding ourselves of the truth of Scripture, even when we are not yet able to believe it. Even when we don’t yet feel it.
The “fighting words” we use to speak back to the negative and untrue thoughts playing in the stereo of our minds help us incrementally build new pathways in our brains. Each small success has an impact on our spirit and brain. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Even attempts to challenge old thinking patterns begin to disrupt old neuronal pathways. That, friends, is the beauty of neuroplasticity and a God who loves to redeem and make all things new.
Pause: Take a moment to still your body and calm your brain. Slowly breathe in and slowly exhale. Read Romans 12:2 and meditate on the idea of being renewed by the transforming of your mind. What does this mean to you? What could this mean about your thought life?
Renew: As you have time, list some of the negative thoughts that plague you consistently. Begin to write down true statements that you can use to combat those thoughts when they come. Find Scripture passages that directly relate to those thoughts and use them as your “fighting words.”
Next: This is hard work. Give yourself grace for even trying. Healing is never linear, and neither is change. It takes time and practice. Thankfully, you have a whole lifetime to keep practicing. Choose one thought that you want to start fighting this week and begin the warfare!
May we know and accept Grace and Truth as we change the music of our thought-lives.
You’re at a play date, listening to another mom tell stories about her child. As you listen to all of her parenting accomplishments, you begin thinking, “Wow, she’s really got it all together. Her kid is really succeeding and seems like he’s on the fast track for honors classes. Am I doing something wrong? My kid ate an earthworm last week.” Suddenly, you’re hit with a blast of anxiety and insecurity that came seemingly out of the blue.
These thoughts are called ANTs – automatic negative thoughts. We’ve all got them. They can come at any time, any day, and particularly when we are feeling vulnerable. Granted, not everyone struggles with the same version of ANTs. Maybe your negative thoughts are about your job or school performance, about your body, whether people like you, or maybe all of the above.
Our thoughts have real power. What we think affects our bodies, our feelings, and our behavior, thus affecting our relationships. Our thoughts affect our very brain structure in the form of neural pathways. There are billions of neural pathways in our brains, being built and strengthened every day. The more we think about a subject, thought, or memory, the more we are forming well-worn pathways in our brains. As we practice new thoughts and habits, new pathways are formed.
A single negative thought may not be too detrimental, but consider what might happen if you continued to think that thought for days, weeks, or even years.
Imagine a 15 year old adolescent trying on a bathing suit at the mall. She happens to notice (in that awful dressing room mirror and under that awful dressing room lighting) that she has cellulite on her thighs. “Oh no,” she thinks, “I can’t wear this kind of bathing suit. I can’t believe how fat my thighs are. I’m going to have to cover up somehow at the pool party this weekend.” This experience has formed a memory and a little seed of shame, but otherwise her life is unaltered.
A one-time thought is like walking through the grass. If you stroll though the grass one time, no one can tell you’ve been there. But what if the girl continued thinking badly about herself for the next month, following new thigh slimming exercises on Pinterest, and researching how to achieve a thigh gap. Maybe she has started comparing herself to other girls at school or to pictures on Instagram.
Now, a neural pathway is forming. My dog walks the same path through my flower beds every day (don’t get me started on that). He has worn away a little path. I think this illustrates how thoughts can form pathways in our brains and in our behaviors. The most traveled paths become the most well-worn and easiest paths for our thoughts to travel.
Now let’s imagine this girl grows up, gets married, and starts a family. She is now 40 years old. What if those negative body image thoughts have continued for the past 25 years? It would be safe to assume that these pathways are now super highways. When it comes to negative thoughts, these superhighways inevitably lead to toll booths – where we begin to pay. Because she is ashamed of her body, perhaps intimacy with her husband has suffered. Maybe she won’t allow photos to be taken of herself when she is wearing shorts or a bathing suit. Now her kids have no pictures of their mom from their last beach vacation. Maybe she limits the kinds of foods she will let herself eat or the kinds of clothes she will wear. Maybe she makes negative comments about her body, and now her daughter has begun to think similar thoughts. It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it?
How do we combat these thoughts? Recognizing them is the first step. Start paying attention to what you are thinking and choosing to believe. If you notice there is a particular ANT that shows up frequently, you might prepare to do battle. Gain an arsenal of true statements that you can tell yourself when this thought shows up. For example:
“My thighs have some of the largest muscles in my body, and they provide stability.”
“My husband loves my body, and I will try to love my body too”
“God made me in His image, and He loves me just the way I am.”
The hardest thing about fighting negative beliefs is that you believe them. Finding someone outside of yourself can be crucial to help discern what is true and what is faulty thinking. Look for some good accountability and encouragement partners who can speak truth to you when your thoughts are getting the best of you. Sometimes bouncing reality off of a trusted friend, mentor, family member, or counselor is a very healing thing. For believers, Scripture is paramount in fighting negative thoughts. God’s word is our ultimate source of truth. Find verses that speak to what you are struggling with, and write them down in places where you will see them frequently.
Spiritually, our thoughts are a real battle ground. Second Corinthians 10:5 tells us to take every thought captive to obey Christ. The enemy would like nothing more than for us to believe and obey the ANTs, because he is the father of lies. Let’s get ready to do battle and choose to believe what is true.
Pause: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Exhale slowly. Contemplate Romans 12:2 (in the picture below). How does it speak to you?
Renew: Apply Romans 12:2 to your thought life. What is a negative thought that has been coming to your mind frequently? Ask the Lord to renew your mind regarding this thought, replacing it with what is true, good, acceptable, and perfect.
Next: Spend the next few days examining your thought-life. What are the ANTs that show up frequently? Find Scripture verses that you can quote back to those thoughts when they come. Make 3×5 cards of these verses that you can carry with you or put in the dashboard of your car as a reminder. Get creative!
Learning to recognize truth and speaking it to ourselves is so powerful. May the Lord help you discern what is true and pure and lovely, and may you meditate on those thoughts this week.