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)

I Don’t Know

Many Meanings

The phrase can mean you’re not sure which choice is best or the one you want.

“I don’t know if I want that one or the other one.”

It can mean you have a preference but may want to let the person asking decide.

“I don’t know if that’s the best choice, but it’s up to you.”

It can also be a lazy answer because you don’t want to put forth the effort to think about the best decision.

“I don’t know why I did that.”

Saying “I don’t know” can mean you know the right choice, would rather make a different choice, and your will and your conscience are duking it out.

“I don’t know if I’ll tell her or not.”

It can also mean you really don’t know the answer.

“I don’t know why that happened.”

Saying “I don’t know” can send the message that you do not understand something or that you aren’t happy about something. It can be a way to avoid a conversation you don’t want to have because of laziness or discomfort.

Maybe you’re really not sure and just need time to think. Or, maybe you don’t want to tell the truth for some reason. Could be you know the response your real answer will get, so you don’t give it.

There are a lot of reasons to say “I don’t know” when asked something. And likely, we’re all guilty of all using each one at some point.

What Experience Shows

Here’s what my experience says about the use of “I don’t know.”

  • Most of the time, you either really do know and don’t want to tell the truth, or you’re too lazy to make a responsible decision.
  • If you truly don’t know, waiting is usually the best choice. Waiting is active though and involves seeking wisdom. Don’t move forward if you don’t have to without knowing until you’ve prayerfully sought the right path.
  • Sometimes, you really don’t know, and that’s okay if it’s from an honest place and not a lazy or deceptive one. Again, just wait it out. Sometimes, not knowing means you’re not supposed to act.
  • Simply waiting when you really don’t know is usually the best option. Many times, the situation will resolve itself or present the right choice if you just don’t force a decision and wait for it to present itself.
  • Sometimes, you have to make a decision even when you don’t know what to do. Pray about it, then make the best decision you can. God doesn’t expect perfection. Plus, there’s often simply not a right or wrong decision.

A lot of scripture get at these truths, so we can know for sure what God desires when we find ourselves saying, “I don’t know.”

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your path.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11)

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5)

God wants us to trust in and lean on him. He wants to give us wisdom for our decisions. He wants us to know which paths to take. And he wants us to have and experience good things.

Trust. Ask. Receive.

Why Are YOU Saying it?

“I don’t know” often shows authenticity and can be a builder of trust and an encouragement. After all, no one likes it when someone acts like they know it all and refuses to admit that sometimes, the truly don’t know the answer.

The next time you find yourself going to “I don’t know” for your answers, ask yourself if that’s really true. Seek out your true intentions. Here are some common ones.

  • Not brave enough to make a decision.
  • Afraid to make the wrong decision.
  • Don’t trust yourself to make the right decision.
  • Afraid of not being accepted if you answer truthfully.
  • Don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
  • Easier than saying “I’m afraid.”
  • Don’t want others to disagree with you.

It’s okay to not know sometimes, but it’s not okay to always not know. It’s not okay if your go to answer is consistently “I don’t know” because you’re hiding the truth.

Instead of automatically answering “I don’t know,” get into the habit of asking God for wisdom. Ask him even when you don’t have a specific situation or question. Make this asking a daily habit, and then seek to know him because knowing him more is the only way truly have the wisdom you need.

Get Ready to Be Ready

Being Prepared

My mind naturally gravitates toward what’s coming and to being prepared for it. In fact, I struggle turning my thoughts away from planning, and it actually keeps me awake at night sometimes. The feeling of going through an event and looking back at it with the satisfaction of having been adequately prepared motivates me to make it happen over and over again.

As good as I am at planning ahead, there’s no way I can be prepared for everything. I just can’t know all that’s coming my way, nor can I think of and plan for every contingency. However, even when an event doesn’t go exactly as planned, being prepared allows me to handle the unexpected with a lot more poise than I would have otherwise.

Like you, I’ve been blindsided many times by events I failed to anticipate or even think possible. People do unexpected things, after all. They mislead and manipulate too. Oh, and not everyone thinks the same way, and we all have different ways of planning and even of what we think being prepared means. Many people even like to be spontaneous and not plan much, if at all. All these factors guarantee the unexpected will happen at some point.

Even the spontaneous among us realize the wisdom in preparing at least part of the time. I’ve also noticed many spontaneous people like the planning that those of us who like to be prepared do. At least, that’s how it works in my family. And when I don’t prepare as much as usual, they wonder what’s wrong and even seem disappointed.

What We Know

While we can’t know and plan for everything, we do need to recognize — and be thankful for — the fact that there’s a lot we we know about ahead of time. The details (how & when) may be unclear, but some events are sure and seem to scream at us to plan for their inevitability.

For example, we know the grass will grow. We know we need to eat and get more food. We know we need to sleep. We know exercise is important. We know we’re aging. We know our kids will grow up. We know time is passing.  With the seasons of life, we know change comes in both expected and unexpected ways. If we’re honest, we know there’s a lot we can do to get ready for what’s coming in our lives.

Luke 5 gets at this idea of being prepared, and it focuses on the single greatest event yet to happen. We’re told in verse 35-48 that we can get ready to be ready for “the Master” (Jesus) to return. We don’t know when this will happen, but we do know it will happen (Matthew 25). In fact, all of Scripture — the entire Bible — serves to prepare us for Christ, and we’re very obviously supposed to prepare for Him.

Dressed In Readiness

How are we to get ready to be ready for Jesus’ return? How are we to be prepared for certain this future event?

“Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit. Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks.” (Luke 12:35-36)

Being dressed in readiness with lamps lit means doing what you know to do to continually be ready. It involves being able to say to always yourself, “I’m ready to meet Jesus.”

Get ready to be ready by…

  • Spending regular time in Scripture and in prayer.
  • Being determined to know God better and better (Ephesians 1:15-18).
  • Letting God renew your mind regularly (Romans 12:2).
  • Letting your actions reflect that growth and renewal (Colossians 1:10).

Scripture is clear that we can be clear about what God wants us to do, that we can be continually dressed in readiness.

“So we have continued praying for you ever since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you a complete understanding of what he wants to do in your lives, and we ask him to make you wise with spiritual wisdom.” (Colossians 1:9)

Get ready to be ready by refusing to be conveniently confused. Don’t put your Bible on a shelf and live as if you don’t know God has certain instructions for how you spend your days on this earth. Choosing to be ignorant will not work as an excuse when Jesus comes knocking. Decide to plan ahead and be prepared for the day you know is coming.

The Mark of Love

Human Maturity

Human maturity involves independence and self care. It involves taking responsibility for commitments. It also means refusing to make excuses and to instead always strive for our best.

As a parent, one of my goals has always been to teach my boys to become independent. I want them to know how to take care of themselves and to be responsible in a well-rounded way. This is the essence of human maturity.

Recently, my husband had to remind me of this goal when I expressed discouragement over my boys needing me less and less every day. My sadness about their pulling away from me became quite heavy one day, and he said…

“Remember, that’s always been our goal.”

Like independence is important in our development as humans, learning dependence on Jesus and His Holy Spirit is even more so in our spiritual maturity.

Spiritual Maturity

Unfortunately, I don’t think I taught my boys the idea of spiritual maturity very well, probably because I’m still learning it myself. And largely because dependence goes against the human part of me that desires to be in control.

“Spiritual maturity is counter to human maturity.” (December 20th, Live Dead Joy by Dick Brogden)

Spiritual maturity involves dependence on God and allowing him to actively care for us. It involves waiting patiently for him to unfold his will and then moving fully into it. Spiritual maturity also means continually acknowledging our weaknesses and realizing we can only be our best under His grace and mercy.

“Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God.” (Hebrews 6:1)

Moving forward in spiritual maturity brings growth that obviously lies beyond any we could obtain on our own.

The Mark of Love

Spiritual growth becomes obvious to ourselves and others through one indelible mark.

“Jesus replied: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’” (Matthew 22:37-40)

If we only mature in a human sense, we become increasingly self-serving and defiantly independent. But, if we also mature spiritually, we live in humble obedience seen through the mark of love on our lives.

Waiting Is The Hardest Part

waiting-lineWaiting in line. Waiting for dinner. Waiting for a train. Waiting for a package to arrive.

Waiting for test results. Waiting for your teen to get home. Waiting for guests to arrive.

Waiting for a phone call. Waiting for a headache to subside. Waiting for the storm to stop.

Waiting for coffee to brew. Waiting for an answer. Waiting for the light to turn green.

Waiting for your turn. Waiting for your flight. Waiting to hear about that job.

Growing impatience. Growing boredom. Time slows to a crawl. Sometimes fear sets in.

Maybe Tom Petty had it right when he sang…

“The waiting is the hardest part. Every day you see one more card. You take it on faith; you take it to the heart. The waiting is the hardest part.”

Why is waiting so difficult for most people?

wait-2Because waiting feels like it serves no purpose.

Because it seems like a waste of time.

Because we hate that we can’t control the situation.

Because it often comes with an unknown outcome.

Because we don’t want to miss out on anything.

Because we really don’t have to wait for much anymore.

Our on-demand culture certainly emphasizes the futility of waiting, of having everything “Your Way Right Away.” After all, we run full tilts on instant messages, fast food and push notifications. Unfortunately, waiting and getting what we want right away all the time only hacks away at our ability for patience in every area of life.

“The need for round-the-clock connection not only makes people more impatient, it also robs them of time for quiet reflection or deeper, more critical thinking. They tend to want constant stimulation, have less impulse control and get distracted more easily.” (Instant Gratification & Its Dark Side by Ronald Aslop)

My family went on a Caribbean cruise last spring. We turned off our phones and locked them in our room safe for the 10-day cruise as soon as we got on board. Many cruisers did not but instead opted to pay the significant fees for limited cell phone access. If a Caribbean cruise can’t lure someone away from the always-connected pace of life, might there be a significant problem at play?

We all know someone like this, right? We get frustrated when they can’t seem to part with their phone, when they pause a face-to-face conversation to have a virtual one. We easily recognize the vanishing effort to slow down our fast-paced, ever-connected lives to spend time simply breathing and thinking and existing… in others anyway.

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Do they really? If this is true, why don’t more people seek to develop patience and their ability to wait? Why do they allow their impatience to drive them? Why do they let technology constantly drive their gratification in every area of life? Why do they think they need success in short order rather than after hard work and long-term effort?

Can we admit that sometimes, this “they” we’re talking about could be our kids, our spouse and maybe even ourselves? Can we see that instant has tainted — maybe even ruined — our ability to patiently wait?

If we take just a few moments, better yet an afternoon or a day, to let go of instant, I think we’ll realize that when we get whatever it is we want right away, we’re never really satisfied because there’s always more to want and have. If we take longer, say a week or more of vacation — a slow-paced one, not a frantic, see-everything one — and limit or eliminate instant as much a possible in our lives, we might discover a part of ourselves longing to get out more.

Learning to Wait Again

manikin-1154431-1599x1832Read a book. Make meals from scratch. Take walks without your phone; let it play dead. Play games. Talk. Look people in the eye. Ask questions, then really listen.

At first you’ll likely feel the itch to get back to instant. Resist the urge. Refuse to give in. Your patience has been dormant a while and may need time to stretch before it can move about again. As time passes, you’ll discover that simplicity, quiet reflection and critical thinking offer something you’ve longed for unaware. You’ll see that real connection happens face-to-face. And you might even create a desire for a less-instant life, one that comes only when pursued.

Learn to slow down and wait again. Teach yourself how to enjoy every moment. Let life’s pace decrease, so you can discover the good that comes through waiting and patience.

What small steps can you take toward less instant life today? What results do you hope to see in the pursuit of learning to wait?

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

dead fishCulture simultaneously challenges us to break free from comfort zones while also providing for their longevity. With the constant offering of pleasures anew, along with the comfort found in instant gratification, we live in a confusing and uncomfortable culture.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Does it really? This quote by Neale Donald Walsch made me question whether or not I needed to totally discard comfort in order to truly live life. Or maybe, I wonder, does comfort allow for the uncomfortable to flourish?

Perhaps living too much in one or the other – comfort or discomfort – actually stifles real living. Maybe having the structure created by some level of safe, secure and familiar provides much-needed security. Then, that security allows for the regular experience of discomfort in a successful way.

Comfort that Supports Discomfort

An organized, comfortable home gives my kids the security they need to go on adventures and meet new people. It gives them promise of a comfortable sanctuary for rest and recuperation waiting for them when they get at home.

Knowing I can produce a lot of volume pretty quickly as a writer gives me the confidence to venture into the scary and challenging world of book writing. I find comfort knowing that the act of writing (specifically, quantity) comes easily. This inspires me to try new styles and genres that might not come naturally.

Dressing comfortably helps me be more social, which is uncomfortable for my shy and introverted self, I’m just braver mentally when I’m comfortable physically.

The God of Comfort

Being comfortable with God, knowing He goes before me and with me (Deuteronomy 31:8) creates an deep comfort. That comfort makes me want to be brave and to tell others about Him. Having this comfort zone with God compels me to make my life a transparent example of His grace and mercy.

So yes, “life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” But, your comfort zone can also provide a structure for bravely venturing into the uncomfortable areas of life.