Life Themes, Part 2

Life Themes

This is a long post. Evaluating a year should take some time. Does for me anyway.

Not only do I need to go through this process for myself, I want to help others in their processes too. I found mine through trial and error. I read a lot about what others did and tried. I kept what worked and threw out what didn’t. My prayer is to inspire you to do the same.

Rather than looking at goal setting, though I do set goals, my focus for making progress revolves around Life Themes instead. Over the years, five themes have emerged and infiltrated my life. I use them to continually evaluate my progress and reset my focus.

These themes serve to help me understand where I’ve been and what I’ve come through in a way that builds toward progress. They help me see my struggles in ways that allow me to focus on victories. These themes also help motivate me to continue moving forward.

Year In Review

Looking regularly at these life themes helps me review my life in a way that sort of hits a reset button on my focus. I don’t believe a true reset is possible in a person’s life. At least, not in the way one can reset a smart phone. It’s impossible for life to start over from a factory default state. A new start, sure, but not a complete do-over.

However, resetting one’s focus is possible. Life themes help me do this. I look at how I’ve applied them in the past, how active they are presently, and how they’re directing  where I’m going.

While I do this periodically throughout the year, I usually look at them more intimately at the beginning of every new calendar year. What follows is a large part of that process.

Life Theme Application

Allow me to share these life themes with some detail and to attempt to provide application points. Use them as motivation for considering your own life themes, whether or not they exist and if you want to adopt any new ones or simply modify the ones you have.

1.) Focus determines reality.

Midlife and empty nest both descended on me this past year. Too often and for too long, I focused on what I was losing. When I reset my focus, I again became grateful for all that I’ve done and experienced.

I’m reminded of the importance of my focus often. Sometimes it’s simply in the movies I watch and books I read, two of my favorite pastimes. Continually, the Holy Spirit whispers this truth back into my life in many creative ways.

No area of life escapes this truth. Where we choose to focus determines the reality of our lives. And, we all get to choose that focus — the place where thoughts dwell and motivations begin. No matter the circumstances, we can always decide to focus on progress over perfection, blessings over trials and protection over limits.

2.) Refuse to quit.

Physically, my body cannot do what it used to do. Take running, for example. No matter how much I decide to do it, my body simply says, “Uh uh.” At least, I can’t do even close to the extent I used to or that I see others my age still doing. I wanted to just stop trying many times. Instead, I adapted. I turned to other types of exercises, lots of different ones. I refuse to quit pursuing physical health.

I wanted to quit in other areas many times too. When a loved one broke trust to a point I thought beyond repair, I verbally said, “I give up.” Multiple times. But, I didn’t follow through. I kept moving. Backwards then nothing for a while, then finally progress with still lots of back and forth. Not the same as before, but I’m finally glad I didn’t follow through on what my feelings directed me toward far too many times.

Perseverance becomes more natural when fueled by obedience to God’s will. Quitting ceases to exist as an option. I wear reminders of these truths daily. Literally, my necklace has two charms: “Persevere.” “Never give up.” Living this has kept me alive more than once, and it’s kept relationships alive too. It overrides feelings and gets me through the afternoon slumps that even now taunt me toward the couch.

When the struggle gets to be too much, I cry out to God to “Help!” I should cry out before this point, I know. His reminder is the same every time: “Don’t quit. Don’t give up. Keep moving. Refuse to quit.” I hear the words over and over in my head. They push me forward, and I’m always glad I listen, especially when progress finally appears. And it always does.

3.) Take small steps.

Progress frustrates me. A lot. It does so because I too often don’t see it until I’m ready to give up. Also because I usually don’t see any progress until all of a sudden… there it is! Progress happens in such small increments that I just don’t usually see it right away. Most progress in my life, perhaps all, has happened this way. I simply need to remind myself of this often so the frustration doesn’t completely derail me.

This is where I find traditional goal setting most comes into play. Yes, it fits in the other life themes also, but the idea of small steps creating progress are what I need to often remember when I’m working toward a goal. Weight loss. Raising my IQ. Both goals of mine this year. Both will only happen with small steps taken consistently.

Regardless of the specific goal, educate yourself on the steps needed for its accomplishment. Then, keep taking them. Even if you don’t see or feel progress. Keep taking them. Even if you go backwards. Keep taking them. Pull in the other themes… stay focused and refuse to quit. You will make progress. I’ve experienced this truth enough that reminding myself of it convinces me to take the next step every time. The same will happen for you too.

4.) Keep it simple.

I was once an expert at complicating my life. Over-thinking. Over-committing. Over-emotionalizing. I was so good at this that it still often creeps back in unnoticed until it’s so glaringly obvious that I have to pay attention and do something about it.

Almost every time I start a new project, I venture toward the complex in the beginning. Actually, I do so throughout too and have to reset a simple focus periodically until the project is complete.

Whenever a problem arises in a relationship, I often make it worse than it really is too. Or, I create problems that don’t exist. I’m very creative, you see. I can imagine a lot about a person or situation and make things horribly complex all by myself.

Opportunity falls by the wayside when my life is complicated. I lose focus on Christ when I venture away from simplicity. I cannot keep on track with any of my life themes or goals when I complicate life. Neither can you. No one can.

Simplicity creates a better way to use our energy. It allows for maintaining focus more consistently. Keeping life as simple as possible results in increased productivity. This is true for all of us.

At the same time, simplicity is relative. What’s simple for me may seem boring to you. What’s complicated to me may be your best focus zone. Knowing what simplicity looks like for you and then not comparing it to how others live is key.

5.) Wait on God.

When I push for something I think I want to happen before I know for sure it’s right for me, my life gets complicated. Every time. I’ve done it enough to know it will happen. But I still do it sometimes. Okay, often. But, I don’t get as far as I used to before I hear “Stop. Wait.” And I’m pretty good at actually listening, especially if I do so sooner rather than later before emotions hijack my decision-making ability.

When I don’t wait and instead rush ahead based on emotions or superficial information or even what others think I should do, I end up with regrets. Like, every time. I also get overwhelmed and over-committed along with losing my focus.

When I wait, that means I’m trusting God’s timing. I’m believing He will make clear when I should take a certain step or make a commitment. It means I’m exercising patience, knowing His timing keeps me from overwhelm and overload. At least, the type of overwhelm and overload that runs me down and ushers in depression.

Waiting on God instead allows for the overwhelm that comes with realizing He cares for me more than I can even imagine. It brings me to a place where I am overloaded with His blessings in a way where I cannot out give Him. That’s a great place to be, by the way. That’s the place I seek and aim for every day.

Where Themes Meet Goals

The best way I’ve discovered to tell how I’m doing in any one area is by looking at how all of them are doing individually and how they’re interacting with one another. In other words, if I’m keeping my life simple, I’m better able to consistently wait on God and keep my focus. If I’m strong in my determination to not quit, I’m likely making solid progress with the small steps that I’m taking. Each life focus is intimately intertwined with the others.

What’s more, progress with more traditional type goals tells me how I’m doing with these life themes too. If I’m steadily working toward weight loss as well as toward raising my IQ, for example, I know I’m likely staying focused on my life themes too.

This whole idea of how themes and goals work in my life makes sense to me. It may not to you. If you’ve read this far, though, you’re probably looking for something — anything — that will work for you too. Let me encourage you to simply keep trying different approaches.

Read more about what has worked for others. Try those. Throw out what doesn’t work for you, and keep what does work. Above all, let the Holy Spirit guide this search and lead you to a place where you feel you are making progress too. That place is out there for you. I promise.

Successful Transitions

Essential Transitions

In writing, transitions help establish logical connections between sentences, paragraphs and ideas. They go a long way in helping create a piece of writing that flows. Unfortunately, many writers neglect spending much time on transitions.

“Often, writers work on scenes but neglect transitions.” (10 Steps to Perfecting Your Writing Style)

Transitions in our lives really aren’t much different from transitions in writing. They help us handle change by connecting one area of life to another. Transitions help us move along and make progress rather than living a stuck life. They serve to create a unified whole.

When I relate how scenes in a story work as related to life, I think of the seasons of life and how I expect or picture them to play out. Those scenes get my focus, and I often forget that my mind, body and spirit need time to adjust from one season to the next.

Without proper transitions, I resist the change that comes with every new season even when it’s expected. When embraced, transitions help me adjust as life’s seasons move from one into another. They help me learn and grow within and through the change.

Transitions do this by drawing me into the wisdom necessary to navigate the progression of life’s changing seasons. They increasingly connect me with God and His plans for every season of my life.

Successful Transitions

Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann describes change and transition as a process where we go from being orientated where we feel secure to being disoriented and in a state of insecurity. As we successfully transition and let Jesus anchor us and give us meaning, we become secure again and find a state of new orientation.

Successful transitions require that we take steps to get and stay anchored in Christ even as the change around us makes the seas of life choppy and overwhelming. Those include…

  1. Waiting. Letting God work out the details and orchestrate the transition.
  2. Praying. Talking out struggles with God and listening for His wisdom.
  3. Focusing. Reading about hope as detailed in Scripture.
  4. Praising. Staying thankful and grateful regardless of surrounding circumstances.
  5. Preparing. Waiting in the activity God gives us to do during the transition.

Transition can be thought of as a state of progress toward perfection. We won’t be perfect until heaven, but the seasons of change in our lives are the path in our journey toward that final destination.

Neglecting Transitions

A life of forward progress requires that we realize change is inevitable and the key to growing through it lies within the transitions. Neglecting the transitions in our lives usually means a resistance to change, which exists because transitions are often difficult and uncomfortable.

Neglecting transitions skips over that which is necessary for us to connect with God and to embrace the changing seasons as He has made them. Without transitions, we find ourselves overwhelmed by change. Eventually, if we fail to transition, we end up living life like we’re drowning in a sea of change that’s is swallowing us up. And at some point, we’ve simply given up trying to swim.

That’s no way to live. What’s more, we’re not meant to live that way. God has a better way.

“A man’s mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)

5 Ways to Be Strong for the Stressed

Strength for stressedLife fluctuates. Sometimes we live in more struggle than victory. But sometimes, we get to bask in the mountaintop sunshine. Most of the time, though, we seem to live with a mixture of both struggle and victory.

Fortunately, for the most part, we each fluctuate at different levels and paces. For example, sometimes my exercise partner encourages me out the door. Other times, I’m forcing her to meet for a run. Sometimes my husband provides stability and help in my busyness; other times, he leans on me.

What relationships in your life reflect this same exchange of encouragement?

I remember a time when I did all of the leaning and needed all of the encouraging. I felt so buried in struggle I had no strength to lend to others. What others did for me during that time taught and prepared me for how to be strong for others later.

The following 5 ways to be strong for the stressed stand out as tremendous helps during my own season of needing to draw strength from my others:

  1. Encourage. While what encourages differs from one person to the next, finding small ways to encourage others helps them put one foot in front of another.  A “praying for you” text or even just a smile from across the room go a long way in encouraging someone when they are struggling.
  2. Listen. Simply listening to a person talk about struggles helps tremendously. Whether it just allows that person to vent or helps them find solutions, authentic listening truly relieves the intensity of stress.
  3. Create space. Find ways to help unload the person’s schedule. Take a friend’s kids for the evening or clean her house while she’s at work. Giving the gift of margin creates breathing room that might be just enough to encourage hope for more permanent relief.
  4. Pray. Often, someone who is overloaded got that way because they refused to allow others to help them. No matter what you can pray for them, and you can let them know you are praying for them. So many times, I could sense extra strength coming through the prayers of those who loved me.
  5. Create comfort. When stressed out, comfort seems absent and quite distant. Bring a friend coffee or make him a favorite meal or treat. Find out what brings comfort, even if only for a moment.

Strength for OthersFor the first time in 20 years, I’m less stressed than my husband, kids and most of my friends. A new experience, to be sure. Perhaps a better way to put it is that I am just balanced and in rhythm right now, and they are all going through times of intense struggle and less balance. I know this will probably change, that I’ll need their strength more and they mine less at some point. But for now, I can take what others did for me and pay it forward.

DISCUSSION: What other ways can you suggest to be strong for others who are stressed and overloaded?

Stop the Beeping!

beep 2The beeping started at 4AM. Where is it coming from? Get the ladder & a new battery. Who put a dead battery with the new ones? Get another battery. Seriously, that one is dead too? Stop the beeping!

Not exactly proud of this, but I’ve watched every episode of Friends. Twice. It makes me laugh. (There’s one aspect of it that I wish was different, but that’s another topic for another discussion.) So, when the beeping started at 4AM and continued every minute for a half hour (seeming like an eternity), I kept thinking about the episode where Phoebe couldn’t stop her fire alarm from going off.

She took the battery out. She ripped the alarm off the ceiling. She smashed it with a shoe. Then, she wrapped it in a blanket and sent it down the garbage shoot only to have it returned to her by a fireman, the alarm still beeping.

So glad my husband handled the situation when the beeping began at 4AM, and he did so with patience even as I lay in bed chuckling every time a “new” battery failed to work. (It seems appropriate at this point to acknowledge that my husband is an insanely and frustratingly patient person. I would have went Phoebe if it was just me.)

As I lay there between bouts of chuckling & frustration, all I knew is that I just wanted the beeping to stop. And in my desperation, I was willing to do almost anything for that to happen. Where was my shoe anyway?

Then I realized how often in life I just wanted something to stop – pain, disappointment, fear, etc. – and was willing to do just about anything to make that happen. That never turns out well.

Stop the pain through substance abuse or self-mutilation. Stop the loneliness with inappropriate physical contact. Stop the chaos by finding comfort in food. Do anything and everything to stop the pain and discomfort. (These aren’t all mine. I just wanted to share the space a bit.)

A Better Way

beep 3I don’t fully understand how it works, but I can tell you that the love of God stops the beeping.

His love stopped depression from ruining my relationships. It stopped my self-hatred. His love gives me hope for a future and joy right now, yes, today. Focusing on His love removes guilt and brings new beginnings.

No, it doesn’t make sense. What the Bible says may seem crazy at times, and perhaps other paths seem more plausible. At least from a human point of view (Proverbs 21:2)

I simply can’t deny that my life was miserable and Jesus brought me out of the pit. Nothing else worked. Self-help and material gain only dug the pit deeper thus creating a harder fall when I got back around to jumping in again. The beeping only got louder.

Desperation

Out of desperation to just stop the beeping, we rush to temporary fixes, to Band-Aids that gush red. We just rip the alarm off the wall, forgetting that it’s there for our safety. Instead of patiently assessing and properly addressing the problem, we do whatever we can to quickly stop the beeping.

But our problems just keep returning. Until we have full batteries, the beeping won’t stop. We must address the source of the problem. And the only way I’ve found for that to happen in a lasting way is through the love of Jesus that covers all my mistakes on the cross.

DISCUSSION: How has the love of God stopped the beeping in your life?

Are You Willing to Not Fit In?

When I was in grade school, I never felt like I fit in. That feeling followed me into my teen and adult years. I’d love to say this problem no longer exists now that I’ve hit mid-life, that I am now secure enough in who Christ made me to be that the desire to fit in no longer plagues me. That would be a lie.

Certainly, I am more confident, but the desire to fit in still lingers and often rears its ugly head in social situations.

Over the years, I did adapt to not fitting in. At some point, I even began to seek out ways to emphasize that aspect that seemed to define me. If others are doing something, I look for ways to avoid doing exactly the same thing. From clothing and accessories to exercise and eating to social interaction, something inside me now purposes to go against the flow, even if only slightly, of what the majority does.

5-7-13 be transformed 1

Both Right and Wrong

In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul says that “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” In other words, he tried to find common ground with people in order to bring them to Christ. Of course, this does not mean sinning, but it does mean getting involved in people’s lives and being authentic with them.

So, in the sense that my going against the flow sometimes causes disconnection with people I could influence, I am wrong in my approach. In fact, doing so has led to missing out on some significant witnessing opportunities. For that, I truly am sorry.

On the other hand, John 15:18-27 clearly indicates that to a great extent, Christ followers won’t fit in with the culture surrounding them. In other words, we must be in the world but not of the world (Romans 12:2). Jesus certainly set the example for us in this area by spending time with and ministering to those who needed Him most and who were often social outcasts, but He did not let them change Him.

When my intentions fall into the realm of wanting to remain separate from the material and fleshly focuses of the world, my approach to not conform and follow the crowd then seems wise.

Resist the Call of the World

5-7-13 be transformed 2

Perhaps both of these approaches need to exist. Maybe both looking for commonalities and connections need to exist alongside being an outsider. In my quest to find that balance, I realize that the outsider status must still dominate; otherwise, my impact as I connect and care becomes less effective.

Let’s look deeper at John 15:18-27 to hopefully understand the importance of an outsider status.

Being an outsider, feeling like you don’t fit in with the crowd (culture), can indicate progress towards becoming more Christ-like (v 18). Realizing that Christ chose you to be an outsider can keep feelings of rejection and aloofness from affecting your walk with Him (v 19).

What’s more, knowing that people aren’t really rejecting you but are actually reacting to their fear of the unknown creates a motivational steadfastness to perhaps amplify your outsider status (vv 20-21). You see, knowing Jesus creates a responsibility that so many people want to avoid because it means increasingly living as an outsider.

Knowing Jesus can mean breaking the death grip that the need to belong and be accepted by the world has. But a dying to self must happen, and this scares people. So, many instead choose to succumb to the call of the world and seek to eliminate any feeling of an outsider status (v 22).

Even with evidence of a better way, hate of Christ’s ways exists without any real cause except a desire to avoid the truth of Christ (vv 23-25).

Outsider Victory

God’s Holy Spirit reveals truth that reveals Jesus (v 26). As His Spirit dwells within us, our outsider status feels more and more like home, like a place of safety, peace and joy. And in that, we discover the courage to bravely tell others about the Jesus who welcomes outsiders. In other words, we become better able to care and connect in an authentic way.

DISCUSSION: What else does scripture say about how Christ followers must interact and exist in the world?

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