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Thoughts from the Battleground and the Garden

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This presentation was prepared for family members of memory care patients at Carillon Assisted Living of Hillsborough, given on August 13, 2013, at the Garden Gang Support Group Meeting.

Your brain grows in the direction of the thoughts you think.

“Your brain is a thinking organ that learns and grows by interacting with the world through perception and action. Mental stimulation improves brain function and actually protects against cognitive decline, as does physical exercise.

“The human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even in old age, it can grow new neurons. Severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, whereas most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In other words, use it or lose it.

“Consider your brain a muscle, and find opportunities to flex it. “Read, read, read,” says Dr. Amir Soas of Case Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland. Do crossword puzzles. Play Scrabble. Start a new hobby or learn to speak a foreign language. “Anything that stimulates the brain to think.” Also, watch less television, because “your brain goes into neutral,” he said.”

“At any age you can – and should – continue to build your brain and expand your mind.”

“Throughout life, your neural networks reorganize and reinforce themselves in response to new stimuli and learning experiences. This body-mind interaction is what stimulates brain cells to grow and connect with each other in complex ways. They do so by extending branches of intricate nerve fibers called dendrites (from the Latin word for “tree”). These are the antennas through which neurons receive communication from each other.

“A healthy, well-functioning neuron can be directly linked to tens of thousands of other neurons, creating a totality of more than a hundred trillion connections – each capable of performing 200 calculations per second! This is the structural basis of your brain’s memory capacity and thinking ability. As a product of its environment, your “three pound universe” is essentially an internal map that reflects your external world.”

~Quoted from: The Franklin Institute – Resources for Science Learning

Walk, run, read, think, write, draw, paint, play cards, play games…imagine…

What I want for you is to keep learning. What I want for you is not to worry.

What happens in advanced Alzheimer’s disease in the physical sense can be analogous to the way many of us choose to live while we still have the ability to communicate, to recognize family and loved ones, and to care for ourselves. Toxic thoughts are anxiety-laden and literally kill the brain over time. In light of this, therefore, let us not underestimate the influence and impact our thoughts and words have. Our aim is to learn to process our feelings and thoughts as we feel and think them. We can learn how to consciously use language to calm our mind and body, which allows our logic and emotions to work together rather than opposing one another. When the learning mode is turned off, the brain activates its fear response which blocks us from growing our capacity to handle our fears consciously. By identifying toxic thinking patterns as they surface, we can replace them with life enriching ones. We can use the ABCs journal as a tool to jump-start this identifying and replacing process in our thought life. Sometimes we need to prod ourselves to acquire the tension-regulating skills needed to embrace our loved ones directly following misunderstanding and disappointment without rejection. This pattern of immediate re-establishment and attunement of relationships over time leads to improvement in:

  1. relationship with others

  2. mood – ability to self-regulate stress and tension

  3. ability to cope with fear

  4. high employ-ability

  5. physical health over time

In contrast, a longstanding pattern of mis-attunement leads to:

  1. the tendency to sabotage relationships

  2. feelings of neglect

  3. alienation from others

  4. experiencing rejection and distress producing isolation leading to further distress and poor health

[These results are statistically significant from the thesis: The connection between object relations, social support, social adjustment, and health (Harvard, 1996).]

Reframe your stressors, fight through your fears, and watch them appear on your gratitude list as you learn to cultivate your garden from the battleground, that is, your life.

Picture, if you would, with me, the root system of a plant underground. Usually, we only see what grows on top. The root system is covered to the eye since it is beneath the surface. So it’s hard to picture, but let’s try. What makes for healthy roots? Right nutrients in the soil, right amount of water and sunshine, right air temperature. If the roots have a problem, no amount of care for the plant above the ground will help long term. Short term, the plant might look good. But in order to last, the roots must be good. Bad roots will eventually kill the plant.

So often, like a superficial gardener, we can stay on the surface of things. We want a quick and easy fix. The irony is that addressing the root of the problem is often quicker and easier than going after the myriad of surface fixes that present themselves each day. Trying to fix everything we see that is not quite right around us can almost, but not quite, drown out the faint cry of the root problem, so that we can barely hear it. It’s there nonetheless simmering inside us, contributing to the physical exhaustion we might feel. Tired out from chasing after the auxiliary issues all day, we fall into bed and escape into a restless sleep…until we wake up to start the whole cycle all over again in the morning. Is it any wonder we feel like a hamster on a treadmill and want desperately to get off? We continue this way, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year until something happens to stop us in our tracks – some tragedy, some illness, some heartache, and eventually death.

Except, tonight can be different. We decide right here and now to plan ahead and get that 15 minutes to an hour of thought time to ask the question of the root problem: What are you? How is it, exactly, that you bother me? And we are ready to listen for the answer. If we keep asking, the answer will become clearer and clearer, and if we are desperate enough, we will humble out and listen…

Ever regret words that came out of your mouth? I often have. Eventually, I decided to ponder misplaced words to find their roots before denial or shame set in, and I repeatedly turned my attention headlong to my pet distraction like a hit and run. I took a long look at, and invite you to think about, which sports teams, musicians, actors, professionals, games, food, drink, drugs, or other activity have you placed your hearts, your affections upon. Is the degree to which you have, said to be inordinate, out of balance? Have you noticed family members vying for your attention? Leaving out a word better spoken or not leaving out a word better left unsaid has changed the courses of many lives. People talk about their relationship with food, and we all understand this. When eating food becomes something I do to have energy to do the work I am called to do, and not for my personal fulfillment, enjoyable as it is, then I understand the purpose of food.

When I ran this by our son, who was 11 at the time, he said with a big grin, “Yes, mom. I eat food so I’ll have the energy to do what God called me to do. Which is to eat.” 😉 He then proceeded with, “I have an inordinate desire not to inordinately desire things.” 🙂

These things make great servants but poor masters! Therefore, use your inclinations and desires as a barometer to tell you where you are in your closest relationships. Striving to look perfect or to feel pleasure on the outside, we leave the inside to remain polluted and in pain. Take the time to find out where the labyrinth began lest you waste your pain. Go one level deeper until you find the root of your misplaced identity that you might plan peace and have joy with those you love, and in your work so that you live well and die well with no regret.

Once we determine the root issue, what do you do next? Burying it in the recesses of our minds seems natural to do to a root, I know. But this root is a problem that must be attended to. Most likely, it is something we can’t control. We might think and plan for work. We might think and plan for vacation more or less. We might even think and plan for some special activity or hobby. What kind of sports equipment we will get. But do we think and plan the kind of thoughts we think, and the kind of words we speak?

Each day that we live and throughout each day, our hearts beat, and we breathe almost without noticing. Functions vital to life happen without a thought. Like ocean waves rhythmically rolling in around the clock, even at night, our lungs and our hearts are continuously working. While we might be consciously eating or speaking, we are not consciously digesting our food or hearing sounds all about us. Necessarily, we filter, balance, rank, and focus according to our perceived needs. If we stop and think about it, we understand that much of what occurs within us and around us is beyond our direct control.

The Psalmist cries out “My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: ‘O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!’” (Psalm 39:4) What, at first, might seem like a fearful thought, awareness of how finite we are, is actually one of the greatest sources of security and confidence to know that our times are not in our fallible, unsure hand, but rather, in the hand of the infallible, sure One. What we cannot control is amply covered by God’s providence and love. This realization can free us to give our best in our thoughts, words, and actions, each hour of each day despite the circumstances. Rather than be afraid, we can love. No matter what the future holds, we know how worthy He is who holds the future. When we recognize His sovereignty, we find ourselves rejoicing on the path to peace.

Questions to ask yourself before you entertain a thought, utter a sound, or allow your face to make an expression:

  1. Was my mind made for the thought I’m about to think?

  2. What was my mind made for, anyway?

  3. Was my mouth made for the sounds and words I am about to speak?

  4. What was my mouth made for, anyway?

  5. Was my face made to express itself this way?

  6. What was my face made for?

  7. What is your attitude toward being misunderstood?

  8. How does that need to change in order for misunderstandings to become a vehicle through which you land on the path to peace?

  9. Don’t be surprised when a new root uncovers itself after you thought you had found the root issue? This work can be like peeling an onion. How will I respond when I learn that there is a root beneath what I thought to be the root problem? Over time, as God sanctifies you, you will be able to trace out your ‘root tree.’

  10. Can you accept not being done with this work until your life is done?

The solution lies in the journey which takes you to your destination at your life’s end.

A gardener had taken great care to plant, water, weed, prune, and nurture the vegetable and flowering plants in the garden. Each year, all year long, they were cared for properly according to their needs each day of each season of their growing lives. A few times each day, the gardener would make time to sit on a well-placed bench in the garden and find peace to think and to praise God who makes the garden grow.

After some time, the garden also looked attractive to some who wanted to trapse through as a shortcut inadvertently trampling some of the plants and hardening a path where the vegetation used to be. Others began to pick the flowers and vegetables for their own consumption. Even dogs found it ideal for urinating and defecating. What did the gardener do? Since the garden was of great value to him, he put up a secure fence with a gate: effective in letting in those who would respect the space as the gardener did, and in keeping out those who did not.

Our hearts are the garden we were given to tend. Does it sometimes seem unavoidable that we clutter our lives with activities that not only don’t help us attain our character goals, but also hinder us from even coming close to reaching them? When we stop and think about the character we want for ourselves and our children, it takes a focused effort, a plan, to get there. Without a plan, we won’t resist the forces that come at us from all directions to steal our time, pollute our hearts, and overtake our very will.

We must be selective about who and what we let into our heart. This is not a luxury but is essential for our gardens to thrive, to be what God intends for them to be. Learn to say “No” to what will get you where you no longer want to be. As we respect our garden and teach others to respect it, we move toward respecting the gardens of others. Without apology, we need to build our fence with a door and expect to knock before entering the door of another. It is a privilege, and not a given, to be let in. Although we cannot keep all offenders out of our lives entirely, we must strive to perfectly protect our thought lives as much as possible so that we don’t overstress our sympathetic nervous system. But how?

What’s the first thought you have when you notice a weakness in someone? Perhaps it’s a character weakness, cognitive or physical impairment. A better question might be, what’s the thought you decide to act on when you notice a weakness in someone, since in our weakness, we might shame before we reassess and speak according to the need?

Whatever your answer is to that second question, you can apply it when you notice a weakness in yourself. Since we are not our own, we are called to treat ourselves (and others) with tender mercies as God treats us. His generous and non-harsh nature transforms how we view Him, ourselves and others, and this, more than anything else, helps us overcome depressing thoughts by driving them away! He truly is with His people always and will never leave those who cling ever closer to Him, the One, like no other, without shame. The physical manifestations of living out the plight that the apostle Paul describes in Romans 7, not doing the good we want to do, and doing the evil we do not want to do, are nowhere more visible than in our brains. How comforting to know that when we are weak, He is strong, and that His power is made perfect in weakness.

The possibility of dementia can be a motivator to seek peace on the inside. It reminds us that memory is a gift and points us to something better that we look forward to…

The boasting of our lives, the things we possess, the desire to assert ourselves above others, that we would grapple hard with, if given the choice, whether we would rather be thought of as virtuous as opposed to actually being virtuous but in obscurity! We are fallen as we come from fallen seed. The Garden of Eden, a place of blessing where God showed His goodness and love became a place of testing. We failed the test and fell into a place of sin, misery, and banishment, no longer fit to enjoy the Garden: no longer fit to live in God’s presence. As the fallen world of inordinate desires seemingly flourishes, in its midst, a new world has begun in Christ at the Garden of Gethsemane where He said not ‘my will be done’ but ‘Thy will be done’. In the Garden Graveyard, in the place of death, Jesus, the Master Gardener, brings forth life. At the cross, He went through physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual suffering in a period of time that would take us an eternity to suffer, in order to bring His people into the Garden City that is better than the Garden of Eden, the ultimate dwelling place, the home we are sick for, the New Jerusalem, where there is the River of Life and the Tree of Life.

The new world lasts forever and is eclipsing the fallen world, which is passing away. In your own experience, are you aware of the allurement to covetousness? But at the same time, can you see its poison, knowing that as you love the thing, it will not love you back? Is it progressively becoming clear that it will not satisfy, that it will not fulfill its promises? Like John the Baptist, I must decrease. He must increase. If we boast, instead, in our weaknesses, they create a dark backdrop that highlights Christ’s light and strength in whom we now boast. In the Garden City, Jesus doesn’t just visit this place, He lives there and will bring His people there who put their hope in Him alone! What is left for us to do? Since He placed eternity in our minds and calls us to take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ, it is clear that our brains are wired to love Him. The one who seeks to please God, to love, serve, worship, remember, and thank Him, forsaking the world and its idols, though he dies, will live together with Him forever. Live…until you die…and then live ever after!

~The four gardens theme was gleaned from a sermon given by Pastor Ian Wise on 7-7-2013 at the Pageland Reformed Presbyterian Church ( )

Closing thoughts:

It has been said, “The thoughts of the mind, when expressed, are the window to the Soul.” Therefore, ask questions to draw out the thoughts of another and clarify motives before drawing conclusions. Try to remember that, in essence, we can study one another best at the doorstep of the house of misunderstanding! To quote Teepa Snow: “By managing your own behavior, actions, words, and reactions, you can change the outcome of an interaction.” Give up? What does that look like? What does that mean? Is that even an option to consider? (’nuff said)…

May we become successful horticulturalists in our thought lives, and may we reap caring, covenant relationships, and good health!

“The battle for relationships is fought and won or lost within your thought life. There’s hope that through the trouble you will overcome and know that you will find peace.”

Journey with me to connecting thought life to relationships – and relationships to health. Redefining success.


Research is amazing. There’s a medicine out there that is received through the optic nerve, that can stimulate and quicken new neural networks, and can help you remember what is most vital to know:

  1. Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope.” Psalm 119:49

  2. When I think of your rules from of old, I take comfort, O Lord.” Psalm 119:52

  3. I remember your name in the night, O Lord, and keep your law.” Psalm 119:5

  4. Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me, I do not forget your law.” Psalm 119:61

  5. I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life.” Psalm 119:93

  6. I hold my life in my hand continually, but I do not forget your law.

  7. The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts.” Psalm 119:109-110

  8. My zeal consumes me, because my foes forget your words.” Psalm 119:139

  9. I am small and despised, yet I do not forget your precepts.” Psalm 119:141

  10. I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.” Psalm 119:176

The prescription can be purchased without insurance.

The cost: desire and time.

The medicine: the Bible.

  1. My eyes long for your promise;I ask, ‘When will you comfort me?’” Psalm 119:82

  2. I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.” Psalm 119:75

  3. This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.”Psalm 119:50

  4. Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors.” Psalm 119:24

Adherence: patients choose, cling, and run to this remedy.

I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I set your rules before me. I cling to your testimonies, O Lord; let me not be put to shame! I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!” Psalm 119:30-32 Contraindications: Addictive but impossible to overdose!

My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times.” Psalm 119:20

Dosage: As much as you can since you can use what you have stored over time.

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Psalm 119:11


List of 20 people who overcame obstacles to begin pursuits later in life:

  1. At age 34, Andrea Bocelli started singing opera seriously.

  2. At age 37, Phyllis Diller became a comedian.

  3. At age 38, Mother Teresa started her work with the poor in Calcutta.

  4. At age 40, Bill Wilson started Alcoholics Anonymous.

  5. At age 40, Julia Child learned to cook and at age 50 began her cooking show.

  6. At age 43, Stan Lee, creator of Spiderman, began drawing his legendary superheroes.

  7. At age 43, I wrote the ABCs journal, a book of memory prompts around relationships and health.

  8. At age 44, Jack Kirby created The Fantastic Four superheroes.

  9. At age 45, F. Murray Abraham got his first decent acting role in Amadeus and won an Academy Award.

  10. At age 48, Susan Boyle began her singing career.

  11. At age 49, I began to knit and play piano.

  12. At age 52, Ray Kroc set out to build the McDonald’s brand.

  13. At age 56, Elizabeth Jolley had her first novel published.

  14. At age 64, Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first book.

  15. At age 66, Colonel Harlan Sanders began to promote Kentucky Fried Chicken.

  16. At age 68, Ricardo Montalban had his dream house built.

  17. At age 71, Mary Wesley had her first novel published.

  18. At age 72, my mom picked up a basketball (shot her first baskets earlier this month on 8/2/2013!)

  19. At age 73, Peter Mark Roget compiled the first edition of Roget’s thesaurus.

  20. At age 76, Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa.

  21. At age 76, Grandma Moses picked up a paintbrush.


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