Spiritually Healthy During the Holidays & Beyond

Light 1Focus Determines Reality

In previous years when the holidays approached, my thoughts immediately went toward negative memories. The cat using the presents under the tree as a litter box. My parents telling me they were divorcing. No decorating or celebrating the first Christmas after the divorce.

Seems silly, really, since those years represent far fewer Decembers than ones with neutral or even positive memories. But since my focus dwelt there, my holiday reality existed in the negative for many years. This meant that depression easily met me each holiday season as well.

Slowly, as I learned how to be Physically Healthy During the Holidays and Beyond, I discovered a desire and ability to choose my focus rather than just allowing it to happen.Light 2

Jesus Changes Everything…

The biggest impact on my focus for lasting transformation and increasing joy during the holidays and beyond came when I truly met Jesus in the pages of Scripture and allowed His Holy Spirit to direct my focus. I’ve technically been a Christian my whole life, but it took almost 30 years for my faith to become a significant driving force.

This doesn’t mean my faith didn’t impact my life before that point, because it definitely did. However, when I finally realized and admitted my utter dependence upon Christ to work in me through His Holy Spirit for a joyful reality, my faith became so much more than mere fire insurance.

If You’ll Let Him!

Jesus always wants to change the focus of our lives toward one of living for God. But He doesn’t force Himself on us. His Holy Spirit doesn’t force its way in as the director of our focus. We must let Him change how we think, which changes our focus, which then changes our reality.

And often, our “letting” involves those activities we already know to be spiritually beneficial. In other words, “letting Christ” simply means doing that which Scripture extols as necessary habits for continually increasing spiritual health. What might those activities include?

  1. Not neglecting the basics. This is never a good idea but especially not during the holidays. Personally, I get knocked off kilter much easier during the holidays, so keeping to a routine of Bible study, prayer & worship proves immensely beneficial.
  2. Renewing the Christmas story. The longer you’ve been a Christian, the more difficult having a wonderment about the Christmas story may seem. Yet, seeing it with fresh perspective can help renew your spirit. I do this by reading a Christmas book every year. Can be fiction or nonfiction, but it must have the Gospel message.
  3. Try simple & minimal. Take this approach with everything from gift giving to party preparation. Consider it with clothing and schedules too. Allow yourself the mental space to enjoy the people in your life by keeping the material aspects as simple as possible.
  4. Pay attention to physical health. Staying Physically Healthy During the Holidays and Beyond is so very difficult with all the parties and special family gatherings focused around food. While indulging may feel good in the moment, the later consequences usually outweigh any momentary, immediate pleasure. Consider the long-term impact of choices before you make them.
  5. Make relationships a priority. Choose relationships over doing and going  and accomplishing and impressing whenever possible. Make Romans 12:18 a goal for all of your relationships this holiday season.

Focusing more on Christ, the Christmas story and beyond, even when feelings or circumstances work to steal that focus, creates habits that work toward a purpose beyond ourselves. Deliberately considering what I allow to direct my focus, the thoughts I allow to dwell in my spirit, helps me continue making right choices that lead to a positive and joy-filled holiday season. And each year, living spiritually healthy during the holidays and beyond becomes a more natural part of who I am.

Establish your focus on the only person able to align all you are with with truth, light and hope. Let Jesus continually and increasingly direct your focus and shape your reality.

DISCUSSION: What activities help you obtain or maintain joy and stay spiritually healthy during the holidays and beyond?

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For another take on how to stay healthy during the holidays, check out the post “How to Keep Emotionally Healthy This Holiday” by Laurie Wallin. While you’re there, take some time to look at the rest of her blog where she writes about how to “live with joy and confidence no matter what life brings.”

How to Have Consistent Focus Even When No One Is Watching

how-to-focus-hacks-infographicFocus Determines Reality

The object of focus as well as the existence or absence of focus itself determines the reality of a person’s life. Do you believe this?

The truth that focus determines reality drives me. I believe it to the point of frustration when focus remains allusive. When my mind continually engages distraction, anxiety and frustration set in and depression approaches.

Establishing & Keeping Focus

When I transitioned from working in an office where others held me accountable for my productivity to working for myself at home where only I truly knew my level of accomplishment, the discipline of focus taunted me while at the same time taught me a great deal about establishing and keeping focus. Here’s what I learned about establishing and keeping focus in that process:

  1. Know your purpose. This requires regular (daily) Scripture study & prayer before moving on to the specific tasks of the day.
  2. Eliminate distraction. Leave your phone in the other room. Work in a room without a television. Go for a walk or bike ride to brainstorm and plan. Find ways to reduce the temptations of distraction.
  3. Simplify. Reduce possessions to regularly-used items. Keep calendars simple and clutter free. Focus on simple, healthy meals. Establish routines to reduce decision-making. When overwhelmed, this one word – “simplify” – works wonders for refocusing.
  4. Talk. Working alone means I’m in my head a lot. Regularly scheduling exercise time or coffee with a friend gives opportunity to get out of my head and process thoughts in more tangible ways. Evenings with my husband and time with my kids also help me cultivate and process ideas.
  5. Follow the Spirit’s leading. Remove blockades (don’t “hinder”) the Holy Spirit’s ability to work in your life. Put yourself in a position to regularly hear the wisdom He offers.
  6. Take small steps. Returning and staying focused happens through small steps (choices) that over time add up to make a huge difference.
  7. Establish accountability. Voicing my goals creates one level of accountability. Partnering with others creates another. Creating deadlines takes accountability up another notch. Make accountability a reality and not just a good idea.

Learning to Focus

When talking to others struggling with focus, I hear excuses like, “I’m not just good at focusing,” or “I just get distracted easily,” as if they lack the ability to focus like some lack musical ability. In this ADD-culture, many seem to believe focus comes only for those blessed with unique ability or at the very least live absent of attention deficit.

My personal success in achieving a focused life convince me that focus is not a special talent like running speed but instead a learned ability. If you’re not yet convinced, consider the story of a young boy diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD & FAS at age 8.

All three of these disorders rip apart one’s ability to focus. Yet, in the past five years through the avenues listed above done in a consistent manner in a stable environment, this boy went from being several years behind in reading to reading just above grade level. He also gets As and Bs in school and stays out of trouble as much as any other 13-year-old boy.

My youngest son taught me anyone can learn to focus. While it may exist as more of a struggle more for some people than for others, anyone can improve their ability to focus.

A Biblical Formula for Focus

Let’s look at one more element involved in one’s ability to focus. Scripture provides a great deal of help on the topic, but let’s look at two passage in particular to finish our discussion on focus.

Focus all energy on one thing: Forget the past, look forward toward the goal, and work to reach the end and receive the prize. (Philippians 3:13-14)

Refuse to focus on the temporary and instead fix your focus on the unseen, the eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Focusing where God tells us to focus results in an extraordinary ability to hone our effectiveness. Keeping eternity in mind as we plan our lives results in living productive and meaningful lives. No longer do we wonder if our daily activity matters because we know we’re connected with the eternal, with what matters most to God, so all we do matters.

Remember the question in the beginning of this post? Go ahead, take a look again.

When we truly believe – because we know for certain – that focus involves choosing to have it as well as placing God as the object of that focus, we find that our ability to focus grows in supernatural ways. We discover that an inability to focus may simply mean a wrong focus. We realize that an overwhelmed life often means a life focused on the wrong or too many different things.

No one can convince me that consistent focus ever exists as impossible for anyone. Learning to focus without being under constant watch by others taught me about the possibility, and my youngest son’s progress over the past 5 years further confirmed the truth. And both leave me excited to live a future focused on God and pleasing Him.

DISCUSSION: What struggles do you have with focus? How does the above advice provide hope for learning to focus?

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Struggling for Unity

UnityAchieving and sustaining real, productive unity seems more and more like grabbing a handful of water these days. Sure, we see glimpses of people uniting for a cause or to accomplish a specific task or goal, but those events seem more like a bandage on a gaping wound than any real gain toward unity.

Instead, many (most?) countries lack a unified people and/or government, and so many companies and organizations struggle in a constant state of mismanagement and overwhelm. Broken marriages divide families and erode trust. Even churches crumble under the weight of selfish disagreements leading to division and strife.

Unity Takes Hard Work.

Feelings often encourage one direction while unity requires another. The choice between self and others continually drives a wedge into any efforts toward unity.

Often, people attempt to avoid disagreement and struggle in an attempt to create unity, failing to realize that unity exists as individuals work through disagreement and struggle. In other words, we find unity as we persevere through differences in opinion and preference and instead work toward peace as we focus on a singular goal. Refusing to quit in the struggle usually leads to great gains in unity.

The Bible teaches on unity more than on Heaven or Hell perhaps because while Satan may not be able to steal our salvation, he can undermine our effectiveness through disunity. He knows that the church and God’s people need unity in order to accomplish the goal of spreading the Gospel. He also knows that unity flourishes as we obey the command to love God and others, and getting our focus on our own desires keeps us from taking the path of love that leads to unity.

Basic Truths About Unity

Let’s look at some basic truths about unity found in Scripture in an effort to realize the significance of the stability unity brings to God’s people, benefits that flow well beyond the body of Christ.

  1. Jesus prayed for unity (John 17). In fact, His last prayer before taking the road to the cross focused on unity among God’s people. He knew that Christians united under God could accomplish much for the Kingdom than individuals operating on individual agendas.
  2. Unity is a command (Ephesians 4:3). A church filled with believers focused on leading Holy-Spirit led lives leads to a unified body bound by peace. Peace and unity together create a strand not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
  3. Unity brings God’s blessings (Psalm 133). Harmony among God’s people refreshes the body of Christ. The pleasant and precious nature of unity spreads and soothes even into areas where chaos reigns.
  4. Unity is a powerful witness (John 13). Simply put, unity and peace make Christianity – following Jesus – attractive to the world. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.
  5. Unity meets deep, emotional needs (Philippians 2:1-2). Encouragement. Comfort. Fellowship. Tenderness. Sympathy. Where these flow, unity and love exist in abundance.
  6. Unity comes through the spiritual growth of individuals (Colossians 2:2). Encouragement and strong ties of love come through confidence in the Gospel. That confidence results when individuals focus on knowing Christ.
  7. God gives us what we need for unity (Romans 15:1-6). Through God’s gifts of patience and encouragement for the purpose of preferring others, individuals adopt the attitude of Christ as a lifestyle, and unity naturally results.
  8. Unity is the strength (essence) of a healthy church (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12; Galatians 3:28). A unified church recognizes the need for every individual to do his/her part, each playing an integral role in the unified body of Christ.
  9. Love results in unity (Colossians 3:14). In fact, love exists as the most important piece of “clothing” a Christian wears because of its role in creating unity.
  10. We must guard unity (Ephesians 4:3; Philippians 2:1-5; 1 Peter 3:8-9). Guarding requires deliberate attention, which means intentionally focusing on the elements that create and sustain unity.

Unity requires a lot of consistent hard work (Psalm 34). Doing nothing to promote unity means allowing it to evaporate and become all but invisible as the gaping wounds in individual lives, in families, in churches, and in countries fester and reach epidemic and infectious proportions.

On Thursday, we’ll look at our individual responsibility for the creation, growth and sustained existence of unity. Get ready… eliminating severe infection often requires pain and sacrifice.

DISCUSSION: What are your thoughts about unity?

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Staying Out of the Pit

The post below first appeared at Cycle Guy’s Spin as part of a series on depression with the focus of helping those who have loved ones struggling with depression but who have never themselves personally struggled with it. The depression series stemmed from my second chance story, which was part of a series on 2nd Chances on Cycle Guy’s Spin.

With depression coming even more to our attentions with the death of Robin Williams recently, I decided to repost the depression series here on Struggle to Victory.

pit

Staying Out of the Pit

What you read on Struggle to Victory covers my main approach to keep from falling back into the pit of depression. I get into the details of topics I am struggling with, find out what Scripture says about them, and process them by writing about them. Doing this helps tremendously in capturing thoughts and not letting them hold me captive, which is what happened when I didn’t know how process feelings. At some point, I just determined not to let my thinking exist without boundaries and structure anymore, and writing gives me a way to establish the boundaries and structure I need to keep well away from the pit.

But writing isn’t all I do. I’ve discovered that one thing rarely does exactly what you need in any area, at least not for very long. Writing simply provides an outlet for my very busy inner life. Being an introvert, my inner life is as busy as the outer life of most extroverts. Writing gives me a way to order that world and to deal with it in a healthy way.

In addition to, or rather alongside and within writing, there are various ways I keep from going in the direction of pit dwelling. First and most importantly, I maintain a daily, consistent relationship with God through Bible study and prayer. I’m not saying this as a high and mighty “look how spiritual I am” statement; instead, it’s meant to simply say that I know I am completely and utterly unable to stay out of the pit of depression without Him. Without the Holy Spirit working in my life, and without God’s mighty power active in and through me, I would not be alive today.

I also make staying physically healthy a priority by eating healthy, exercising and getting plenty of adequate rest. I’m willing to try different approaches to health and wellness because I’ve learned that limiting yourself to the approach of traditional, Western medicine only limits and may even inhibit your ability to overcome depression and become healthy. My approach is along the lines of integrative medicine.

Staying aware of personal triggers is important too. I know the signs of my getting overwhelmed (digestion issues, sleep problems, anxiety & general grumpiness, for example), and I make adjustments as soon as I realize what’s happening to prevent any more veering off into bumpy territory.

While I need routine and structure to some extent, I must balance them with flexibility and variety. Otherwise, I get into a rut of boredom that also leads to depression. Fortunately, my husband and sons help tremendously with this area not just with their busy schedules but also with their zest for discovery and adventure.

Knowing what to avoid is also key (examples for me include sugar, romance novels, and television shows in general). One area of thought that I need to be extra careful with is absolutes. Saying “I never…” or “I can’t…” or “I always…” usually takes me down a very narrow and precarious path. I’ve learned to leave the absolutes up to God who has the capacity to follow through with them simply because He doesn’t change and I do.

As you can see, I have a variety of ways I keep from falling back into the pit. All of them are negotiable except my reliance on God.

sooner quoteIn Retrospect

Some ask what I would have done differently now that I am able to look back on depression with some objectivity. Let me simply say that I just would have done all of this sooner. I would have taken the small steps needed to get out of the pit sooner. I would have asked God to help me sooner. I would have let others help sooner. I would have let my pride go sooner. Nothing really done differently since all were necessary parts of the journey. They just all could have happened sooner.

So much (most really) of what caused my depression was outside of my control, so I don’t think I personally could have prevented it. I could have just taken the steps to get out of it sooner. That’s all on me.

DISCUSSION: How can someone not suffering from depression help those who do struggle stay out of the pit?

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Why We Need Variety within Spiritual Disciplines

Below is a guest post by Chris Peek. Chris blogs at Trail Reflections where he offers content that encourages leaders to discover their life mission, live with intention, pursue adventure and become fully alive.

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Why We Need Variety within Spiritual Disciplines

My heart is prone to forget. For seven years, my wife has struggled with a chronic health condition known as POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) – a form dysautonomia. From 2008-2011, we traversed the specialty medical circuit – VCU, Vanderbilt, Toledo, and the Mayo Clinic – as Karen underwent test after test, consultation after consultation.

Over time, it became apparent that she would be forced to manage the disease rather than be cured of it. Through the days, months, and years of pain and struggle, Karen has shown incredible strength and resolve. And as her condition became our new “normal,” our attention turned to growing our family.

Some doctors opined that we should hold off on having children. However, Karen’s POTS specialist in Toledo encouraged us to pursue pregnancy, stating that many POTS patients do really well while pregnant.

Yet after three miscarriages, we contemplated whether or not we should simply give up. Thankfully, we didn’t lose complete hope, even in the midst of some extremely dark days. Eventually, Karen got pregnant once again, and this time, everything seemed to be on track right up through the first several hours of labor.

I have a saying that few things in our lives seem to come easy, and the delivery of our son would be no exception. About 4:30 AM, the doctor burst into our room, jarring me out of my light nap. With a deep concern in his voice, he confirmed that both Karen’s and the baby’s heart rates were unstable. They needed to perform a C-section right away. After the longest hour-and-a-half of my life, she gave birth to our beautiful, healthy son.

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Prone to Forget

Six months later, my heart is prone to forget about the struggle and pain. I am more apt to go about our daily routine of diaper changes and battling acid reflux without spending a moment recognizing God’s blessing of a beautiful baby boy.

Similarly, my heart is prone to lose sight of the cross and the brutal sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. I am so self-absorbed that I am more concerned about paying the bills than God’s work throughout the nations. I can stand in awe of God’s blessing one day and have completely forgotten about His favor a mere 24 hours later.

Maybe that is why the apostle Paul urges us to “Pray without ceasing…” or why the Psalmist prayerfully offers, “I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.”

There are so many distractions in our world that it takes discipline to remain in firmly entrenched in God’s presence. Spiritual discipline. That’s not a phrase we hear bandied about too much anymore, even within the walls of the church. Discipline sounds so twentieth century. We live in the century of instantaneous pleasure and success.

I’m probably the last person who should be writing about spiritual discipline because my heart is prone to wander and is filled with inconsistencies. Nevertheless, an ongoing relationship with God cannot exist without spiritual discipline. Discipline is a word we often associate with routine and boredom. Yet by adding a little variety, we can keep our relationship with God alive and vibrant.

Variety within Spiritual Disciplines

We don’t have to sit in the same location to pray or read the Bible. We don’t have to attend the same church service and sit in the same pew we have been sitting in for the last 20 years. If your spiritual walk feels stale, it’s probably because it is. The goal of spiritual discipline is not discipline in and of itself, but to draw into a more intimate walk with the Father.

What are some ways we can add variety to spiritual disciplines?

Worship – This can take on so many forms. Why not look for creative and meaningful ways to worship? Work is worship. Art is worship. Singing is worship. The key is whether the worship points back to God or to self.

Prayer – I like to pray while I am walking on a nature trail. Sometimes I talk to God while driving. Other times, I prefer to pray just sitting in silence. We may need to break away for an hour and spend time with God in His Creation.

Acts of Service – There are an infinite number of ways to serve the church and community. They key involves utilizing our unique calling in a variety of others-centered ways.

Bible Reading – There are numerous, sound Bible translations available to us, and it may help to switch up every once in a while. In addition, we have limitless books, courses, Bible studies, and workbooks available at the click of a mouse. These resources provide a helpful way to inject life into devotional times.

DISCUSSION: Is your heart prone to wander? What other ways can we add variety to spiritual disciplines in order to make our hearts come alive?

 

Time for a Paradigm Shift?

milkFood Substitutions

Because of a dairy allergy, coconut milk substitutes for cow’s milk. Because of a gluten intolerance, rice-based products substitute for those made with wheat flour.

“That’s got to be hard,” many people say to me. “No, it’s really not,” I respond. “I’m used to it.”

But the comment always reminds me of the beginning of the journey when I constantly felt frustrated. I looked at store shelves and even my own cupboards and saw only what I couldn’t eat.

Over the past five years, my paradigm regarding food shifted dramatically. Through this process, God also taught me more about Himself.

“Always remember, your focus determines your reality.” (Qui-Gon to Anakin, Star Wars, The Phantom Menace)

cookiesAfter diagnosis of a food allergy & several sensitivities, I slowly adjusted my eating habits. My attention now goes to what I can eat, and I think little about what’s not on my menu anymore. When I focused on what I couldn’t eat, I felt deprived. When I focused on what I could have, I discovered new and enjoyable experiences.

In the Christian life, focusing on what God offers brings exciting and eternally beneficial experiences well beyond anything the world offers. What you “can’t” have no longer becomes what you want.

“Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Ice creamIf I eat dairy or gluten, my digestion immediately slows almost to a stop. If I keep eating them, my body fails to get needed nutrients, and eventually adrenal fatigue and depression set in along with other unpleasant reactions. The consequences range from immediate and uncomfortable to severe and debilitating. I must live with a zero-tolerance policy regarding gluten and dairy.

I must also have zero-tolerance in certain areas of my spiritual life if I want to remain spiritually healthy. Days need to begin with prayer. Regular fellowship and worship need to exist. Bible study must happen frequently & regularly. Compromising in any of these areas leads to consequences that are devastating.

“Simply the thing I am shall make me live.” (William Shakespeare)

Upon first discovery of my food allergy and sensitivities, I felt like my life was horribly complicated. I struggled to figure out what I could and could not eat and felt not only like a burden when eating with others but an outsider as well.

Now I realize my diet simplifies my life and makes me healthier because most unhealthy foods filling so many dinner tables don’t find their way into my house much. Restaurant choices are limited (cross-contamination), but these limitations also simplify choices and save time. Once I accepted myself physically with regard to food limitations, I realized that simplicity was a gift that helped me and my family lead healthier lives.

As I learn to accept who I am spiritually, my life becomes simpler and more focused. Instead of wishing I was someone else with different gifts, talents and abilities, I find peace and contentment with who I am. Accepting myself as God created me is having wide-reaching impact on my life.

“[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

The integration of so many substitutions into my life also leads me to be more aware of the life-giving power that substitutions can have. After all, they created a healthier me than has ever existed.

The biggest truth that these substitutions bring to light for me involves the substition of Jesus for my sins, for everyone’s sins. No, I don’t think of this every time I make a food substitution, but I do think of it often, especially when I reflect on the journey my health and eating have taken over the past five years.

The connection between my eating and spiritual journeys exists as one of the major reasons I truly believe God wants to be in every detail of our lives. He also wants to use every detail to shape spiritual paradigms too.

DISCUSSION: How has God used a situation or journey in your life to make a paradigm shift?

Consistent Stretching & Strengthening

Stretching 2Foot and leg pain began when I started running at age 14 because a boy I liked ran cross country. (Incidentally, over 20 years later, not only do I still run, but I’m married to that boy who also still runs.) My first memory of these problems were shin splints. My cross country coach faithfully taped my feet before every practice & meet to help alleviate some of the pain.

My mom took me to the podiatrist who fitted me with orthodics, which I don’t recall really wearing much (okay, not at all). In college, I ran very little, so the pain subsided, and I all but forgot about it.

Then the pain started again after college because I started running again. I also started teaching college classes, which meant a lot of standing, and the pain in my feet and legs gradually increased and returned worse than ever.

Stretching 1After trying orthodics again, expensive shoes & lots of rest, I finally sought to revamp my running form as well as to incorporate cross training activities. Still, the pain increased to the point of not being able to walk without a limp.

Next, I endured the most painful event ever in my life, nerve testing of my feet (seriously, huge crochet needs stuck in the side of my feet). No problems found. Next came hours of physical therapy on pretty much every joint & ligament from the waste down. Painful.

The point? I’ve done a lot to find relief from this chronic feet, leg & hip pain. But only one route brought any consistent relief… stretching & strengthening.

Physical therapy taught me how to stretch the tight muscles in my legs and feet. About the same time, I began to strengthen my core too. When I do these regularly, my feet and leg pain – along with any back pain – almost disappears. Missing a day or two here and there isn’t a big deal, but chronically missing them gradually brings back the pain and tingling sensation.

My lifelong struggle with foot, leg and hip pain and finally finding the solution of stretching and strengthening remind me of the importance of consistent Bible study, prayer and fellowship. When I do these activities regularly, my focus remains steadily on Christ and my purposes set toward His desires. When I don’t, I lose focus easily and find myself lost and unbalanced in a chaotic world. These activities, when done consistently, do for my soul what stretching does for my muscles… prepare me to better handle the stress and strain of life.

So, why don’t I always keep with the habits of prayer, Bible study & fellowship?Probably for the same reason I neglect my stretching & strengthening routine at times. When the pain goes away, I forget what brought relief. Conversely, when I feel the pain, I’m motivated toward the habits that keep me flexible and strong.

The same holds true spiritually. Unfortunately, I’ve sort of trained God that I need to feel pain and/or discomfort in order to keep to the good habits that provide for my protection. He knows I need to be reminded of the basic habits needed to remain strong and flexible in this journey of life.

Does your life reflect this truth? Share your story in the comments.

Muscle Memory

Muscle memory (neuromuscular facilitation)…

“occurs when you have repeated an action enough times to have etched that pattern into your brain. The action becomes automatic, requiring no conscious input on your part.”

memoryGetting dressed, walking and tying your shoes are examples of activities completed by muscle memory. To get a feel of just how comfortable you are in your muscle memory, try changing your routine in any of these activities. Put your clothes on in a different order than usual. Try imitating how someone else walks. Change the way you tie your shoes. You’ll find just how comfortable muscle memory makes you feel and how hard it is to change it.

We also have negative habits established in muscle memory. Clenching your jaw and poor posture are examples. Take that a step further to our thought processes. Do you find yourself saying, “I can’t…” all too easily before even trying something new or changing a routine? These negative habits and thought patterns are examples of muscle memories too.

We need muscle memory to automate tasks that we don’t need to give mental energy toward, which allows us to redirect that energy toward that which requires active thinking and processing on our part. Our lives are filled with muscle memory activities, some of which make our lives easier and some of which present struggles we need to focus on and overcome in order to grow and mature. Muscle memory can both free us for bigger tasks and keep us from attempting them.

Spiritual Muscle Memory

Do you feel stuck spiritually? Consider reprogramming your spiritual muscle memory. If prayers feel aimless and/or worship seems a dry routine, perhaps muscle memory needs changed. And if loving others seems like a forced “should,” then changing spiritual muscle memory might lead to transformation.

The following elements, adapted from what psychologists and athletes alike use when breaking down old muscle memory habits to create new ones, hint at beginning steps for changing spiritual muscle memory:

  1. Repetition. Too often, a positive habit fails to get established in muscle memory because we fail to repeat the process enough times. Only through repetition can we effectively rid ourselves of bad habits and replace them with good ones.
  2. Consistency. Once you find out what works, stick with it. Keep doing what works (repetition) to establish it as a habit.
  3. Comfort. Creating new muscle memories and letting old ones go creates discomfort. Keep comfort zones for times of rest and recuperation that generate energy needed for the discomfort of stretching and growing.
  4. Brokenness. Sometimes, we must break down what is not working in order to create a new habit that will make us stronger. This gets at the idea of rooting out  bad habits holding us back and replacing them with new ones that helps us grow.
  5. Variety. Just like we need comfort in order to work through discomfort, we also need variety in order to not get swallowed up in the repetition of consistency. Establish consistent habits but allow for variety within them.

What can you immediately apply from this list to help you move forward and go deeper in your relationship with God? The principles of breaking down and establishing muscle memory were deliberately discussed generally to allow for more unique individual application. Take some time to consider how you can personally apply these principles, and share your ideas in the comments.

Note: This month’s focus lies with taking aspects of our physical selves and making spiritual connections. Also, this week begins a summer schedule for Struggle to Victory with a scheduled post every Tuesday and periodic posts at other times throughout the month (my attempt at being a bit more spontaneous). I’m open to publishing guest posts as well, so leave any interest in writing one in the comments below.

Five Ways To Combat Stress, a Guest Post by Dan Erickson

Dan Erickson writes about writing and blogging in a hectic world.  His blog,  “writing for the sake of my humanity,” is an eclectic combination of writing and blogging advice, poetry, music, and minimalism.  Dan has written two books including, A Train Called Forgiveness , based on his personal experience of being the child victim of an extreme religious cult.

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Dan EricksonStress.

I’ve had my share.

I was the child victim of a religious cult, basically a slave to a megalomaniac cult leader.  After my escape as a 16-year-old boy, I went to the opposite extreme and enjoyed my freedom a little too much.  I spent years wondering aimlessly, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, which be the way, didn’t relieve the stress.

After a dozen years of self-abuse, I finally found my way back to normal.  Whatever that is?  I went back to college at the age of 30, earned my master’s degree by 38, and was married about the same time.

My spouse wound up having extreme mental health issues.  More stress.  We lost our firstborn child.  Stress on top of stress.  She couldn’t care for our second.  Her meddling parents tried to convince her she could.  Triple stress.  That led to a divorce that took five years to complete, and to me becoming the single parent to my daughter when she was 11-months old.  Superstress.  Yes, that’s a new word.

So as you can see, I’ve dealt with my share of stress.  Recently, I added more stress to my plate.  I started a blog (or three).  I wrote a book (or two).  I bought a house (only one).  And now I’m teaching double-overload classes as a college instructor in order to pay for the house.  Geez!  Will I ever learn?

Yes!  I will.  And I have.  What I’ve learned is that one doesn’t necessarily have to eliminate stressful events, but rather there are ways to relieve stress during those events.  The key is balance.

Stress becomes harder to bear when we focus only on the stressors.  So we must find other outlets, other places to focus our energy.  We need to learn to compartmentalize our activities.

Here are five things I’ve done to help myself through the most stressful times in my life.

  1. Eating right: I put this at the top of the list because it’s essential to well being.  When we eat foods that lack nutrients, it’s like fueling our bodies with bad gas.  If you get bad gas in your car, it can cause it to sputter and run inefficiently.  When we eat junk we get tired and worn down.  This is the last thing we need when we’re under heavy stress.  Make sure to spend the extra time and money to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts, and other foods rich in nutrients.
  2. Exercise: My divorce was strung out and frustrating.  The waiting and the expense was enough to drive anyone crazy.  So… I ran.  I discovered that running is an excellent way of dealing with pent up negative energy.  Something happened when I ran.  It was meditative.  I focused only on the moment, each step, my breath.  That allowed me to disengage from the stress of the divorce.  Exercise helps us think clearer.  It’s an essential part of dealing with life’s stressors.
  3. Team support: I’ve always been a bit of a maverick.  If I can’t do it myself then forget it.  When I became a single dad, I discovered that I could not be a one-man show.  I had to reach out to others.  What I found is that there are a lot of good people out there who are willing to help out someone in distress.  Several members of the church I attend stepped up to help take turns watching my daughter so that I could work and take occasional getaways.  Having people in your corner during stressful times is a Godsend.
  4. I’m a musician.  Music has always been an incredible outlet for me.  But sometimes life has become so complicated that I’ve set my music aside for short periods of time.  When I’m stressed I’ve found that returning to music is another effective self-therapy.  For you it might be writing, cooking, or gardening.  But having a hobby to turn to helps to balance things out a bit.
  5. Meditation: I’m not a Zen Master.  I’m not a Yogi.  In fact, I’m a Christian by faith.  But I’ve found that meditation can be extremely helpful in relieving stress.  That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in prayer.  I do.  And I practice prayer, too.  But sometimes prayer can cause us to focus on the problem when we should let it go.  I’ve found that practicing simple breathing exercises while letting the mind relax, letting thoughts dissipate, can bring down tension levels considerably.

I’m sure there are other things one can do to combat stress.  From my own experience, finding a balance that includes good nutrition, team support and healthy activities has worked wonders.

DISCUSSION: Tell me about a stressful situation in your life.  What methods were most effective for you in dealing with the stress?

Dan invited me to guest post on his site, “writing for the sake of my humanity,” earlier this month. Check out the post, “writing, why you should trust the process,” on Dan’s blog. Be sure to peruse the rest of the site while you’re there!

For the month of April, Struggle to Victory is focusing on my virtual influences by featuring guest posts, by guest posting on other sites, and by highlighting some of the regular visitors to this blog. Hopefully, you’ll be encouraged, strengthened & challenged by these people as much as I have on a regular basis, people I am proud to say have an impact on my thinking in ways that matter eternally.

Virtual Influences

InfluenceFor the month of April, Struggle to Victory is focusing on my virtual influences by featuring guest posts, by guest posting on other sites, and by highlighting some of the regular visitors to this blog. Hopefully, you’ll be encouraged, strengthened & challenged by these people as much as I have on a regular basis, people I am proud to say have an impact on my thinking in ways that matter eternally.

With that in mind, the following is a list of individuals with whom I interact with on a regular basis on this blog, on their own blogs, and/or on other blogs. Please take the time to visit some (or all) of them over the next few days, and I think you’ll soon realize why they are part of my virtual influences.

There are others for sure, but these are the ones who not only do I read their blogs regularly, but they are regular participants on Struggle to Victory over the last few months. Many of these individuals are also people I email periodically, some more than others, for advice, prayer, etc. I truly am blessed to have these godly individuals in at the core of my virtual influences.

DISCUSSION: Who are the individuals at the core of your virtual influence? Give kudos to anyone on this list, or add to the list with some of your favorites!