Things Worth Thinking

On just an ordinary, normal day, how aware are you of the type of thoughts you think? What’s going through your head as you straighten up the house, fold the laundry, feed the dog, maybe drive to church? The types of thoughts we think—even the tiny little neutral ones we barely notice—are more important than we give them credit for, even though they might last only a second or two.

Most people are largely unaware of the stream of thoughts they are entertaining, unless they are working hard to figure out a problem, fuming over something someone has said or done, or replaying a memory—good or bad—that has stirred up an emotional response. Many of our thoughts may seem like white noise—we barely notice them—but they can contain a quiet running monologue about ourselves and our world, whether people are good or bad, whether things are improving or getting worse, whether it’s safe to trust other people, go to new places, try new things. Those “white noise” thoughts can shape what we believe about the reality we encounter each day without our even knowing it.

Once in a while something interrupts those largely unexamined waves of thought and gives us a chance to see what we’re thinking in a clearer light. I had two of those moments this week. First, I was trying to decide whether I had the time I needed to get something done before a certain deadline, and almost instantly thoughts about all the obstacles that could happen popped into my head, discouraging me. But then another thought said, “Wait a minute—in the past things like this have always worked out fine, maybe it would be better to choose the outcome I want.” At that moment, I saw—or I guess, heard—that there was a choice to be made, a clear fork in the road in my own thought. I could choose the hopeful path toward what I wanted to accomplish, or I could decide it wasn’t possible and not even try. I wound up choosing the hopeful path and I’m glad to report that everything got done and things worked out fine.

The other example happened later that same day, when I had a conversation with someone who said they’d had a change of heart about something. This was good news and a welcome change, but after our conversation ended, I wondered, “Was something else going on here? Was she just saying that to reassure me, with no real intention of following through?” Suddenly I saw again the choice that was   presenting itself to my mind: Will I believe her or not? Will I choose the more hopeful path of looking for the best in her and taking her at her word, or the more cynical path of, “I’ll believe it when I see it?” I saw clearly this was an either/or choice and one that would shape what I believe about her in the future. So I chose the more hopeful path, the path more in line with the way I know God sees her. I consider it an investment in love, one that will help us both look for and find “that of God” in each other.

Researchers know that we think tens of thousands of thoughts each day and that much of what we think may be repetitive in nature, as we think similar things day by day, month by month, and year by year. Our repetitive thinking creates well-worn neural pathways in our brains as we develop patterns of thought—for better and for worse—that solidify our world views, our opinions, and our expectations of each other. Recently researchers at Queens University in Canada did a fascinating study on the nature of what they called thought worms, meaning the way in which one thought sparks consecutive thoughts about a particular topic. They estimate that when you organize those ten thousand thoughts by the topics they represent—the thought worms they follow—we have about 6,500 unique chains of thought in single day’s time. The study was designed to see what happens when people change the direction of their thinking and scientists learned that there are identifiable points when the mind turns—like a scene changing in a movie—and that clears the stage for new thought, new inspiration, the beginning of new patterns.

Knowing this helps us see how possible it is—even hard-wired in our brains—to change the way we think. In our Old Testament reading today, we heard Isaiah’s ideas on the importance of turning our thoughts God’s way:

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways.”

Isaiah suggests something profound and ultimately practical here: that the best focus for our thoughts is right here, in this precise and living moment, the only time where God can be found. When we do that, Isaiah suggests, we are met with mercy and pardon, no matter how negative or confused or messy or imperfect our past thoughts or behaviors may have been. When we can turn our minds toward God and listen, we will hear what’s true and real and pure. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” God tells us through Isaiah. “Neither are your ways my ways.”

Isaiah goes on to describe God’s ways and thoughts and explains the creative nature of all that God intends, with the rain and snow coming down from heaven but not returning to it, watering the earth, making it bud, blossom, and flourish. That blossoming “yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,” Isaiah says. God gives all that is needed for the cycles of life on earth. It is built right into the system. And then God says, “…So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

This is a powerful promise that if we will trade our self-oriented thoughts for quiet time with God, we will experience the blessing of God’s presence with us in a real way. We will hear what God has for us. But stopping that constant flow of thought may seem impossible, especially if you have an always busy mind. How can we learn to pause that torrent of thought? In our Friends tradition, we are fortunate to incorporate the practice of stillness; it’s built right into our pattern of worship. We know what it means to create and protect a quiet space within and pause receptively, waiting reverently to let Christ speak to our condition. And if we aren’t as comfortable with the silence as we’d like to be, we can try adding a few simple practices to our day to develop our capacity for listening.

One way to do that is to simply learn to pause between our thoughts. Similar to the space that follows a period at the end of a sentence in something we read, with a little awareness, we can put a period at the end of a thought and then let ourselves rest for just a few seconds in that silent space that follows. If we do that often enough—maybe eight or ten times a day—we will begin to notice more opportunities for quiet pauses and we’ll start to enjoy the feeling of peace and freedom that comes when we rest from our thoughts, even for the briefest time.

Another way to increase our receptivity is to schedule some time in our day to purposely listen to God. We can choose a time that’s good for us, say 8am and 8pm, and then set a reminder on our phones for “listening time.” When the alarm goes off, we stop whatever we’re doing, take a deep, relaxing breath, and tell God, “I’m listening.” And then listen. We might try it for two or three minutes at first and then increase the listening time as we feel more comfortable and come to enjoy it. We may be surprised by what we hear—and feel—in those few tender moments listening attentively to the loving guide that is always with us.

We can recognize our need for this kind of thoughtful pause anytime we feel that spiraling negativity about our world, about our circumstances, about the prospects for the future. If we hear ourselves complaining or sharing doomsday stories with friends or family, we can recognize it as an indication that we’re following a “thought worm” about hopelessness or darkness or fear. That’s not to say when our thoughts align with God everything will be sunshine and rainbows all the time—we will still see the injustices, the needs, the hurts in our world. But the difference is that when we see those things and our thoughts are aligned with God’s, we will feel empowered, not hopeless; we will recognize and speak for truth, not rage about the lies; and the way will open for us to do what we can to bring goodness and light, respect and care to the situation, whatever it may be. We’ll feel an inner nudge, showing us how we can be part of the solution. That’s how Friends of the past made such great progress in humanitarian efforts. They kept their eyes on “that of God” in others and their thoughts and actions, love, and hope all aligned with the outcome they sought: the realization of God’s goodness for all living beings the whole world over. Why did their efforts succeed? Because they were in the flow of God’s purpose and God’s word accomplishes the blessing it is created to share.

In our New Testament passage, Paul is writing to the Philippians and offers a crystal clear process on how to keep hope and love alive and operative in our minds, in our lives, and in our community. He says to start with joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” And then he writes,

“Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving”—there’s that joy again—“present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Can you hear how this connects with the passage we heard from Isaiah? The Lord is near, says Paul. Seek the Lord while he may be found, said Isaiah. Both understood that God’s presence, God’s love, God’s thoughts are available to us in this precise and living moment, and that when we trust that, and listen to it, Christ guards our hearts and minds with perfect peace.

Paul says the best plan is to fill our minds with thoughts worth thinking, ideas that affirm God’s goodness and the goodness of all God created. He says, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” When we consistently hold those kinds of values in our minds and hearts, when we love them and align our actions with them, we will begin to see them showing up in our experience. And once we start to see them, we will nurture and share them. Why does it happen this way? Because God’s word does not return empty—it will accomplish the good purpose God intends for it. Over time, as we realize what a force for good our thoughts can be when we’re listening to God,  we will begin to see what God sees in the world—not corruption and deceit, hatred and division—but a world in need of the Light of God’s love and grace, beloved children far from peace, who need caring hearts and hopeful thoughts to comfort and guide them. It’s possible. Friends have done it for centuries. We simply need to see clearly the choice our thoughts are offering us, and choose to align with God’s very best for all.

In closing, I share two verses from the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who understood so keenly the power of God’s pure and peaceful guidance, always available now:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind;
in purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper rev’rence, praise.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess,
The beauty of thy peace.


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