I SAMUEL 10:20-27

APRIL 20, 2008


            Two boys on a bicycle built for two had a hard time climbing a hill.  When they finally reached the top both were near exhaustion, especially the boy in front who said, “I thought we would never make it”

            “We wouldn’t have,” replied the other, “if I hadn’t kept my foot on the brake to keep us from rolling down the hill.”

            Some of us are very much like that little boy on the back of the bicycle.  We go through life with our foot on the brake.  We wallow in the mud instead of flying with the eagles, and Saul in our passage for today was certainly like this.

            The prophet Samuel has gathered the people of Israel together to present to them their very first king, a man named Saul.  After telling them what a dumb thing it was for them to insist on having an earthly king instead of their relying totally upon God, Samuel takes the Israelites through a very dramatic process.  He starts with all the tribes of Israel, parades them in front of the people, and then chooses just one tribe, the tribe of Benjamin.  Then he does the same thing with the clans and he chooses one clan, the clan of Matre.  Then of all the people in the clan he introduces Saul as their king, but there was a slight hitch in Samuel’s plan.  Saul was nowhere in sight.  Where was he?  He was hiding behind the baggage.  Why was he hiding?  Some think he was making last minute adjustments to this acceptance speech.  Others think he was just milking the moment, making the presentation more dramatic.  The majority of scholars, however, believe he was hiding because he was scared.  He did not think he had what it took to be king.

            Saul is a classic example of someone who went through life with his brakes on.  He never lived up to his potential.  Negative trains of thought derailed him.  He went to his death with his foot on the brake, and in this series we are learning how to take our foot off the brake.  In this series we are investigating eight biblical principles which, if put into practice, will enable us to become eagle flyers.  Thus fare we have learned the importance of allowing for trouble, of taking charge of our future and of allocating time for personal renewal.  Today we we turn our attention to practice #4: interrupting negative trains of thought.

            And this is going to be a challenge because we live in such a negative world.  I think of the research of Ted Smith of Virginia Tech.  He conducted a study for the Media Instituted in Washington D.C.  As part of the study Smith reviewed the tapes and transcripts from the three nightly news shows on ABC, NBC, and CBS.  What he discovered bordered on the ridiculous.  He observed that during seven years of unprecedented economic growth the amount of negative news about the economy increased in tone.  In other words, the better the economy got, the worse its press became.

            Considering this I would hate to have the feeding of the five thousand covered by the media today.  If that miracle was covered on the news today, I’m sure there would be a story there somewhere complaining that there was no butter for the bread or no lemon for the fish!  Face it.  We live in a world that focuses on the negative.

            In this regard I think of the hunter who took his new hunting retriever out to test him.  The man shot a bird and it fell into the water.  The dog immediately darted after it, walking on top of the water.  The hunter couldn’t believe his eyes, so he rubbed them and shot a second bird.  Sure enough, the dog did the same thing.  The retriever walked on the water to get the bird and walked on the water to take the bird to his owner.

            Amazed by the dog’s behavior, the hunter decided to show him off to his best friend.  He invited his friend to go out with him early the next morning.  Without saying a think about the dog’s ability, the hunter took a shot, hit his first bird of the day, and the dog walked on top of water, picked up the dead bird, and returned on top of the water.  The hunter asked his best friend, “Do you notice anything different about my new dog?”

            His friend replied, “No, he looks just like any other bird dog to me.”

            The hunter then shot another bird and the same thing happened.  Again the remarkable retriever walked on top of the water and retrieved the bird.  The hunter asked again, “Are you sure you don’t see anything different about my new dog?” 

            His friend thought for a moment and then said, “Why, yes, that dog can’t swim!”

            We live in a negative world, but we do not have to be that way ourselves, and eagle flyers certainly are not.  They have learned to do what Saul was unable to do in our passage for today.  They have learned to interrupt negative trains of thought.  How do we do that ourselves?  Let me offer some suggestions.

            Step one in interrupting negative trains of thought: monitor your thought life. 

            The bible is very clear on this.  For example, Solomon said, “As a person thinks within himself, so he is.”  The Apostle Paul said, “Gird your mind for action,” and “Be transformed through the renewal of your mind.”  This is important because our emotions do not rise from events, they rise from what we think about those events and how we interpret those events.  My wife, Trudy, and I can observe the same event and have a different emotional response to it because our self-talk differs. 

            You might consider a little experiment.  You might want to follow the advice of David Burns, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania.  Burns in helping his patients monitor their thought lives, asks them to purchase the type of wrist counters golfers use to keep score.  These patients wear the counter all day and click it each time they catch themselves thinking a negative thought.  At the end of the day they write down the total score in a log book.  Burns reports that at first the number of critical thoughts increase as the person gets better at identifying them.  Soon, however, the daily total begins to go down as people are made more aware of their negative patterns of thinking.

            Mark Twain put it well, “Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings.  It consists mainly of the storms of thoughts that are forever blowing through one’s mind.”  Monitoring the storm is the first step toward recovery.

            Step two in interrupting negative trains of thought: correct stinking thinking, or to put it in psychological terms, correct cognitive distortions.  In this step we question the logic of our thinking and correct those patterns that are inaccurate and harmful.  In this regard, consider four major patterns of stinking thinking.

            The first is catastrophizing.  Here we make ourselves miserable by casting the situation in the worst possible light.  We make ourselves miserable by repeating statements to ourselves like, “I can’t stand this stress,” or “I’ll never get out of this mess,” or “This has to be the worst day of my life.”

            When we catch ourselves doing this we need to yell, “Stop!” and make an on the stop modification.  For instance, instead of saying, “I’ll never get out of this mess,” we can say to ourselves, “Now wait a minute.  Is it really true that I’ll never get out of this mess?  No, of course not.  That was an overreaction.  I do have a big problem here, and there is a lot of pressure, but I’ll eventually get it solved.”  Or instead of saying, “I can’t stand this stress,” we can say, “Can I stand this any longer?  Sure, at least I can if I have to.”

            Growing up in an alcoholic family I became an expert at this.  Growing up in such a family I learned to expect and prepare for the worst, which often happened.  Now, imagining the worst got me through the world as a child, but it does not work well anymore.  Fearing the worst possible outcome is not very healthy or beneficial anymore.  It is crazy.  Someone says to me, “I need to talk to you about something when you get a minute,” and I immediately think, “Oh no, what did I do wrong?  I’ve blown it again.”

            Catastrophizing comes straight from the pit of hell and we can decide to rid ourselves of those distortions.

            A second pattern of stinking thinking is selecting the negative.  Bruce Larson tells about trying to spread some good cheer to a melancholy cab driver who picked him up at the Indianapolis airport.  “It’s a gorgeous day here in Indiana!” Bruce exclaimed.

            “You should have been here yesterday,” the cabbie said.  “It was terrible.”

            Larson tried again.  “The autumn leaves are gone in Maryland where I live, but your trees are still beautiful.  I’m glad I came this week”

            The cabbie responded, “These leaves will be gone in three or four days.”

            The cabbie was so glum, he became a challenge to Larson, but no matter what Larson tried, the guy had a negative comeback. 

            How is it that so many of us get into such negative patterns?  My guess is largely by habit.  Pessimism and hopelessness become a knee-jerk reaction.  As a result many of us are blind to the good around us.

            Then there is the cognitive distortion of generalizing.  That is, from one incident we jump to all sorts of wild generalizations.  We flunk a test and say to ourselves, “I always mess up on tests,” or we miss a turn while driving and say, “I can’t do anything right today.”  Oh, really?  We did get ourselves dressed in the morning, and our socks match and we did find our car, and we did successfully back it out of the driveway.  We did do some things right today.   Generalizing statements usually are not true and they need to be challenged and changed.

            Then, fourthly, there is the cognitive distortion of personalizing.  I have a sticky-note pad in office which reads, “It’s not my fault.”  Personalizing is always blaming oneself for problems and failures.  If someone is unhappy we think, “I must have done something to make him unhappy.”  If your child does poorly at school you think, “I must be a terrible mother.”  If it hasn’t rained in a month, it’s our fault because we have not been regular in prayer.  Now, granted, sometimes it is our fault, but personalizing takes it to an extreme.  It takes personal responsibility for every thing.

            Then, finally, step three of interrupting negative trains of thought: strive for favorable connotations.  Eagle flyers not only interrupt negative trains of thought and replace them with more logical assessments, but they also try to see things in as favorable a light as possible.

            Imagine something for a moment.  Imagine your mind as a thought factory, and every day on the assembly line, your mind produces thousands and thousands of thoughts, and two foreman are in charge of the factory.  The names on their hard hats are Mr. Gainground and Mr. Slideback.  Mr. Gainground oversees the production of positive thoughts.  Mr. Slideback, on the other hand, works in the darker wing of the plant and produces negative, deprecating, worrisome thoughts.

            Both foreman are well qualified for their respective duties.  Gainground specializes in producing reasons why you can face life confidently, why you can handle whatever comes your way.  Mr. Slideback, however, is full of reasons why you cannot succeed, why you are pitifully unable, why you should cave in, bow down and surrender.  They both await our signal.  They are both instantly obedient.  Provide yourself with a positive signal and Mr. Gainground throws the switch.  Provide yourself with a negative signal and Slideback is off and running.

            Folks, Slideback needs to be demoted.  We need only one foreman in our factory.  His name is Gainground and he is eager to assist us.  People who fly with eagles strive for favorable connotations.

            Henry Ward Beecher was a preacher in Brooklyn, New York.  Occasionally a certain member would come and say to him, “I counted your mistakes in English today.  You had twenty.” 

            Dr. Beecher would smile and say, “I bet I made twice that!”

            During that time a young man named Michael would sit in the bak pew.  He was an immigrant, not long in the USA.  That young man eventually became a professor at Columbia University and a noted inventor, Michael Pupin.  Dr. Pupin, in reflecting upon his early years, said, “Nothing so inspired me and stimulated me as those sermons of Dr. Beecher.”

            One person saw grammatical error and the other found inspiration.  One fed Mr. Gainground and the other Mr. Slideback.

            Do we want to fly with eagles?  If so, allow for trouble, take charge of your future, allocate time for personal renewal, and interrupt negative trains of thought.  According to the Bible, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.  According to the Bible, happiness, contentment and joy are a matter of right thinking, and not intelligence, age or position.