The I Can’t Muscle

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What comes to mind when I say, “muscle memory”? 

 It’s one of those ability gifts that we often don’t pay much attention to but is a significant attribute designed into our bodies. One example that comes to mind is learning to ride a bicycle. If we learn to do that as a child, we learn not only the technique but also balance and movement. If we never get on a bicycle again until adulthood but rode often as a child, our muscle memory will help us ride again even if we are a bit rusty the first time. I think of that one because my mother never learned to ride a bike as a child and tried as an adult fairly unsuccessfully. But I learned as a child and didn’t ride again until sometime in my mid-twenties and had little difficulty getting back to it again even though pregnant at the time.

Our muscle memory is found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding bikes, driving motor vehicles, playing ball sports, typing on keyboards, entering PINs, playing musical instruments, poker, martial arts, swimming, and dancing.

Sound simple?  Well, science now tells us there are two types of muscle memory. One is neurological and stems from recall of a learned activity like riding a bike, driving a golf ball down the fairway, knowing various martial arts moves, and more. The second type is identified as physiological memory and related to regrowth of muscle tissue that relates to regaining lost muscle mass due to inactivity related or injury. 

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Of course it’s not so much your muscles actually remembering but what happens in the central nervous system made up of your brain and spinal cord when an activity is learned and neural pathways form that now can send signals to whatever part of the body needs them. When we have learned them well, they become automatic, and we largely don’t even need to think about them because of those neural pathways.

But there are other things that it seems can influence this process that falls in the psychological memory aspect of us. If we get messages in childhood that may seem incidental that give us the sense that we cannot do something in one area or especially when it is more than one, we start believing we cannot. The “I can’t muscle” can grow stronger over time so we don’t feel competent or confident in those areas and even become generalized across all areas of the person’s life.

Recently, I used this illustration to describe myself in a conversation with my husband. He grew up pretty independently without a lot of instruction about anything and as a result, he became a problem solver who figured out to do whatever he needed to do and grew in trusting he could even when it was new or a challenge. He just knew he needed to figure it out and did. 

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He sometimes is puzzled that I don’t always operate similarly even all these years into adulthood. My family background gave me a different message though I am sure it was not their intent. Instead of it resulting in my believing I could do something, I believed I likely couldn’t, and it grew my “I can’t” mindset when faced with a new skill or task. Perhaps it came from my difficulty understanding math in middle school due to some ineffective teachers. I struggled with math homework and what I heard from my mother was “I was never very good at math either and could not do well with it.”  I soon believed I was in some way deficient, and my parents hovered over every homework assignment with no real helpful instruction that little-by-little cemented the belief in my memory. The result was that I continued to have challenges with any area of math throughout my school career. Math finally began to make more sense to me when I became a teacher and had the benefit of the teacher’s manual that not only gave me answers but also instructions about “how to” do the problems.

This sense of lack of ability or competence spread to other areas as well and with it grew a sense of fearing failure, so it was better not to try. I was shocked when I would win a superior rating in a music competition and earn a spot on the honor roll (despite math). The sense of growing up thinking my family did not think I could, became a muscle of “I can’t.” Over time I was blessed with some very discerning teachers who began to give me other messages and when I met my husband early in college, he never failed to believe I could. He saw potential, strength, and possibility to overcome the old messages.

How did God fit into the picture? I began to see how He pursued and used so many who did not appear to be the best choice. Some had messed up miserably and He still chose them, and they became leaders and models. For me, I became a champion for every student who came into my classroom of believing they could be more and do more than they thought, and I watched with excitement as they grew “I can” muscles. That translated again when I finished graduate school and became a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and met for 25 years with persons whose lives were upside down and they also believed “I can’t” and without a doubt I believed with God that they could.

As I grow older, there can be a sneak attack of the old “I can’t” that creeps in even now but I have experience to combat that negative system even though my first impulse might occasionally revert to that. The truth is that I will never forget what I have learned about this and how God can use it for good as I pass along messages to others of “I can.”  This is not the memory that should guide us in the last quarter of our lives when we reflect on the life we have behind us.

“The fact is that every life is simply a series of lives, each one of them with its own task, its own flavor, its own brand of errors, its own type of sins, its own glories, its own kind of deep dank despair, its own plethora of possibilities, all designed to lead us to the same end – happiness and a sense of fulfillment.

Life is a mosaic made up of multiple pieces, each of them full in itself, each of them a stepping-stone on the way to the rest of it.”  

Joan Chittister

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Our Stories – More Than We Think

It can be easy to think we know our stories – at least for the most part. We can start through a timeline from the time we were born to the present and list various key things to share depending on whom we wish to tell. And over the years we learn more about ourselves, things that don’t go on a timeline and gain from lived experience and what we discover along the way.

Part of that discovery is growing to makes choices about what will define us despite all the other people and forces that want to shape us. It means discovering who we were meant to be. Even though we thought we knew at big event markers like graduations, jobs or professions, weddings, etc., the quest is truly to become who we were meant to be.

Patti Callahan Henry describes it this way in one of her novels:

“You see there are moments in life when the smallest action leads to the biggest changes. We don’t know – none of us – when those moments are happening. We understand only when we look to the past, and sometimes not even then.”

From The Perfect Love Song

It’s only later, looking in the review mirror, that we can get glimpses of the unseen moments, things, places, and people who have influenced those actions.

When we are very young, we believe we are the ones making the choices independently and that leads to the temptation to take the credit or the blame without seeing the complex interplay of so many pieces of the puzzle that is us.

One of the challenges in so many of our relationships is that we often only know that person in the now or recent years. We miss all the things that have shaped this person and the deeper understanding of who they are as well as why they are who they are. What a treasure to have even a few relationships where we can know such things. How much we could gain if we knew the before.

As I was reading and considering this, I was fascinated by what Eugene Peterson wrote about this:

Apart from the before, the now has little meaning. The now is only a thin slice of who I am, isolated from the rich deposits of before, it cannot be understood.”

From Run with the Horses

How profound a truth Peterson writes in this quote! Even when we are older and have perhaps been married for a long time as my husband and I have, it would seem we know everything and yet we discover little slivers of things even now.

Just a bit later, Peterson fleshes out that statement:

The before is the root system of the visible now. Our lives cannot be read as a newspaper reports on current events; they are unabridged novels with character and plot development, each paragraph essential for mature appreciation.”

From Run with the Horses

But the priceless truth is there is One who knew me before. We see that clearly in Psalm 139 when the psalmist writes these words:

For you formed my innermost being, shaping my delicate inside and my intricate outside, and wove them all together in my mother’s womb. I thank you, God, for making me so mysteriously complex! Everything you do is marvelously breathtaking. It simply amazes me to think about it! How thoroughly you know me, Lord!

Psalm 139: 13-14 (TPT)

Do you see? God knows me – God knows you – in the before. He knows each of us before the timeline we can recite. He knows things we cannot even begin to fathom because He created us for a part, a special part He is inviting us to play. When we are born, we arrive in the midst of a story that is already going on. It is not only the story of our birth and family of origin, but God’s story.

Yes, we have choices, but He has created each one of us and when we enter the story and the role we play is special indeed.

Once again Eugene Peterson expands our perception as he writes:

“Before it ever crossed our minds that God might be important, God singled us out as important. Before we were formed in the womb, God knew us. We are known before we know.”

From Run with the Horses

And then this…

“The story into which life fits is already well on its way when we walk into the room. It is an exciting, brilliant, multi voiced conversation.”

From Run with the Horses

If we can remember this, it can begin to give us a glimpse of God’s perspective, even though we can catch only a glimpse as the created ones as compared to the One who has created the whole story that unfolds moment by moment into eternity.


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Everywhere I look there are ads. They pop up on my computer, fill my email inbox, gobble up space in my favorite magazine, fill my mailbox, interrupt the program I am watching on TV, and clutter the landscape along the roads I drive. And it isn’t just my eyes they try to capture. They bombard my ears on every radio station and most music streaming and audio podcasts as well.

Each ad tries to sell me something or persuade me to try or accept something or someone. Each offers a promise for something they believe I will want or that they try to entice me to want.

What is a promise anyway? The dictionary offers definitions for the word when it is used as a noun as well as when it is used as a verb. As a noun it means: “a declaration or assurance that one will do a particular thing or that a particular thing will happen.” When the word is used as a verb, it means “assure someone that one will definitely do, give, or arrange.”

Most of us come face-to-face with promises when we are very young children and our faith in the promise is sure, but we quickly discover that the word promise doesn’t mean a lot to many who promise us something. It tempts us to make promises we are not wholly committed to keeping as well.

Depending on what we experience from childhood onward into adulthood, we are often skeptical about any promise offered us. Trust broken early on childhood promises makes trust harder to give another time.

We would like to believe a promise, but it becomes increasingly difficult. Some of the promises nudge us to try trusting in the product or person one more time, but even with prayers and fingers crossed we sometimes are once again disappointed. Then we can chide ourselves for believing the promise.

Once upon a time “a man’s word was his bond” or so we have heard. Commitments were kept and often sealed with various symbols or even a handshake in more recent times. This principle’s origin goes back to the 1500’s when merchant traders made agreements before written pledges were established.

We might wish this principle were still valued today, but we would need to then abide by it as well. It can often be easier to exact a promise than to make one we are wholly committed to. If you need proof of that, a recent check on divorce statistics or headlines about broken contracts by big companies and enterprises will provide it.

Unfortunately, our experiences with promises has an impact on promises made regarding our religious faith. When someone I can see and even do a background check on is not trustworthy to keep a promise, how can I trust an unseen God to believe the promises He makes?

But you see we can actually do a lot of background checking on God as well. The Bible offers multiple centuries of history in the stories we read that are often confirmed by historians like Josephus that support the view that God is a promise keeper. If we do not read the whole of the texts and gain the context and study the meaning, we might risk arguing but that would be to our detriment since the evidence is on his side.

God sealed his pledges in covenants over and over again in various ways and means. Some are still able to be seen today with our own eyes such as when a radiant rainbow arches over the sky to remind us God has promised to never destroy the world again by means of a flood.

The greatest of God’s pledges was the blood covenant of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross so those who believe will never die and live forever in eternity with Him. Our challenge is to risk believing in the promise by faith and to study God’s history to know the truth of his character.

As I was driving to church recently, the words of an old hymn came to mind. I recall it being sung often in the little country church where I grew up. Some of you might know it well also. Its title is “Standing on the Promises.” As with so many of those hymns heard and sung often while I was growing up, the words can come to mind even though I may not have sung the song in many years.

The words of the verses and refrain of this one are these:

Standing on the promises of Christ my King, 
Through eternal ages let His praises ring, 
Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing, 
Standing on the promises of God.

Standing, standing, 
Standing on the promises of God my Savior; 
Standing, standing, 
I’m standing on the promises of God.

Standing on the promises that cannot fail, 
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail, 
By the living Word of God I shall prevail,
Standing on the promises of God.

Standing on the promises I now can see 
Perfect, present cleansing in the blood for me; 
Standing in the liberty where Christ makes free, 
Standing on the promises of God.

Standing on the promises of Christ the Lord, 
Bound to Him eternally by love’s strong cord, 
Overcoming daily with the Spirit’s sword, 
Standing on the promises of God.

Standing on the promises I cannot fall, 
Listening every moment to the Spirit’s call 
Resting in my Saviour as my all in all, 
Standing on the promises of God.

I am often curious about the one who penned the words of a hymn and if you look at this one by composer Russell Kelso Carter (1849-1928), you will discover the words reflect his personal experience. His history is one of an outstanding student and athlete who committed his life to Christ at the age of 15. Later he would become an instructor and then an ordained Methodist minister, but he didn’t stop there and ultimately became a medical doctor.

At the age of 30, Carter was diagnosed with a critical heart condition and faced imminent death. His response was to kneel and pray, asking God to heal him, but also promising God that no matter how He chose to answer that prayer he would forever consecrate his life and service to the Lord.

God chose to answer that prayer with healing and gave Carter a healthy heart that allowed him to go on living for another 49 years. In an article by Lynda Schultz in Thrive about this she writes as follows:

“In the end, Carter came to the conclusion that healing was God’s choice to make and that God also chose the instruments through which that healing, if granted, would come. His hymn was a personal testimony to his faith,”

Lynda Schultz in Thrive

What is the personal testimony of our faith today?

What promises are we standing on?

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Beware of the Easy Days

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We all love a day that has no drama or undue stress. We can relax and enjoy the day. Oftentimes we look toward vacation days or weekends for such respites from the daily challenges of life and work. There is something about being able to let down our guard and just chill out that appeals to most of us.

Even when we plan for such days or times away, many of us have had these plans and desires upended. Flights get delayed or canceled, construction on the highway sends us on an endless detour, a sudden storm halts all modes of transportation, or someone gets sick. Our hope for an easy day, weekend, or vacation disappears like a vapor.

We continue to long for easy days, lazy days. We want someone else to be in charge for a while.

Sometimes when such a day comes together, we lean back in a hammock and let thoughts roam, or we sit on a patio as dusk falls and listen to the sounds of the night commence as the last rays of the sun slip below the horizon.

We stop paying attention and cuing into anything but our own reverie.

It can be natural to forget there is an unseen world around us where a battle is raging for our soul. Our archenemy never sleeps and is always seeking who may be off guard and lured into his devices.

It can happen to the best of us who love and serve the Lord. If it happened to Kind David, it can happen to any one of us.


David, the Goliath slayer, the one about whom songs were written and sung throughout Israel, was a mighty warrior undefeated in battle with God on his side. But then in 2 Samuel 11 as spring came and all the kings were going out to battle, David sent his chief of military operations, Joab, and all his servants and mighty men out to battle while he remained at home. Didn’t he deserve a day off now and then?  He had trained mighty men of war, certainly they could manage without him this time. Perhaps they could, but maybe he couldn’t manage to handle his leave from battle as well as he thought.

Here he is relaxing on his roof on a beautiful day and the archenemy sees his chance. David’s eyes gaze upon the beauty of woman bathing and lusts after her. He sends for her to be brought to him. She is Bathsheba, wife of one of his mighty warriors, but no matter. The enemy has already stirred David’s lust to a fever pitch, and he takes her to his bed and then sends her home. Did he really think no one would notice and that he would not get caught?

Even if no man or woman saw the deed, did David think God was off on vacation and missed what he did?

As I was reading this passage, I took note of the wise comments in the footnote to this story in my Bible:

“There is no point in life’s journey so dangerous as when one has arrived at a comfortable place and lowers one’s guard.

Sin seldom shows itself all at once, or even as sin at all. The temptation to sin is usually more subtle than that. But once in its grip, one is taken to places one never intended to go and held longer than one ever intended to stay.”

It’s been said that any fool can lose a battle. You just need an opponent who is weaker, but it is a questionable talent to lose a battle when you start off with all the advantages.

History gives us numerous examples. It happened to Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn despite his strategies and belief that the attack he planned would be a surprise. It happened to Napoleon when he ran short on supplies and sought to retreat from Moscow after he decided to invade Russia. It happened at the Battle of Antietam during the American Civil War as well and the list of such battles could go on and on. Over and over again when one side was underestimating the opponent or resting and not on watch, a rout took place.

You may be saying that our archenemy in the spiritual world is far stronger than you are and if you do, the enemy knows he is likely to win. He knows then that you have forgotten that our triune God and all his angels fight on our behalf. Our responsibility is to stay on watch and call on Him when those subtle temptations begin.

Peter understood that well. He had a history of faltering when the enemy was sneaking around. His recommendations are key to keep in focus on easy days:

“8 Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you napping.

9 Keep your guard up. You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world. So keep a firm grip on the faith.

10 The suffering won’t last forever. It won’t be long before this generous God who has great plans for us in Christ – eternal and glorious plans they are! – will have you put together and on your feet for good. 11 He gets the last word; yes, he does.”

1 Peter 5:8-11 (MSG)

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The Book of Lost Friends

Lisa Wingate has a special way of inviting you into historical fiction that fascinates the reader from the first page to the last. Her newest book, The Book of Lost Friends, is no exception as she opens our awareness to life ten years after the end of the Civil War in Louisiana (1875) through what is discovered by a teacher quite by accident in the small town of Augustine, Louisiana in 1987. Wingate tells a captivating tale with a centerpiece of history not widely known by most of us.

Benedetta Silva (known as Benny) is a first-year teacher who arrives in the small rural town of Augustine for a subsidized job she hopes will pay off her student loans. Even her graduate studies in English have not prepared her for her role as an English teacher in this town. It takes no time at all to discover how suspicious everyone is about this newcomer and how unhelpful they can be in helping her find housing, The home she is finally able to rent is a shabby small home built on a corner of a run-down plantation of old next to a cemetery. Finding help for the leaking roof or much of anything proves challenging before she even meets her students.

The students in her classroom are far off the usual students for Benny. They are rowdy and largely uneducated in the basic subjects of reading and math. The curriculum is not suited to their learning level and yet the board of education made up of the town upper-class elite expect her to teach these students everyone has given up on. She soon learns no teacher has lasted long in this position and the principal is of little help in giving her wise direction.

Even with all this, Benny is determined to help these students everyone else has written off despite prejudices of all kinds that she bumps into at every turn whether in school or the town even though it is 1987. Her own family history is one she has sought to set aside as a result of her broken family and a history shrouded by supposed involvement with Mussolini in Italy during WW II.

When she walks the cemetery next to her house and begins exploring beyond the hedges onto the property of the plantation her interest is piqued. The local restaurant is where she meets a lively character named Granny T who begins to reveal more about her students and introduces her to a woman named Sarge who can fix her roof when Benny cannot get a return call from the owners of the home.

Little by little she discovers more about the life in the area in the post-Civil War years full of chaos and uncertainty for the wealthy, the poor, the slaves now freed, and those who would want to keep them in tow and hide the stories of their abuse and the mixture of the plantation owners and their offspring of both white, black, and mixed racial heritage. Many of her students have these persons as their ancestors but know little of the heritage that holds them in the lowly status they live.

Discovery of how former slaves began to search for their family members who had been sold off at various times and places gives Benny a hope of how she can captivate her students and get them involved in education through research to uncover the history of the area including those buried in hidden graves beyond the town cemetery next to where she is living. 

In the process Benny discovers the advertisements the former slaves posted in various places and ultimately compiled and published in the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist newspaper. The ads looking for lost family members published there are read in churches across the country and shared from one person to another. This discovery by Benny turns out to be the key to unlocking her students’ attention and get them involved in their stories and things they can be proud of as well as grieve. 

This part of Lisa Wingate’s story set in 1875 features one of these searchers she creates, Hannie Gossett, who was a slave on the plantation where Benny now lives. The story Hannie tells opens the readers’ eyes to the tragic heartbreak of those whose lives were shattered by slavey and separation from family members. It also looks at how these very tragedies open the door to learning, reading, research, and more in Benny’s 1987 classroom even though the elite of the town want to keep the truth buried.

This book is captivating and powerful in the parallel stories with Lisa Wingate’s skill at bringing all the intersections of the two periods together. It is well worth the read as Wingate weaves factual historical data with her fictional characters and storyline.