Why We Need James’ Message (the one from the Greek Bible) to Overcome the Brain’s Wiring

James 2:1-13 one of the four Christian Bible passages suggested for preaching this week.  (Spoiler alert to all in my congregation:  I’m preaching again from James.)

James is famous for his insistence on the integration of faith with deeds, and much can be said about that, neuro-spiritually speaking.

But this passage specifically speaks against stereotyping, and it’s something we need to hear over and over and over again.  Because our brains are wired to stereotype.  What our brains do, it’s not inherently evil.  Our brains are just going along their merry way, trying hard to conserve energy and find shortcuts.  (Remember, our brains consume 20-25% of our calories.  Sadly, your brain won’t necessarily burn off  the extra delicious calories that come from ice cream or m&m binges, even if you think really really hard about this blog.)

So, our brains are wired to stereotype, because it’s a shortcut, and it saves energy.  What is unfaithful, or unreflective, or irresponsible, is to allow our brains to dictate our lives.  Contradictory, I know.  But:  Just because our brains stereotype to save energy, doesn’t mean we sit back and let them be lazy.  No, God gave us this gift of a brain, to use.  We 21st century human beings are called to a higher standard; we’re called to engage our prefrontal cortex.

What does that look like?  Thinking about our thoughts, because

1. We are not our thoughts.

2. We can change our thoughts.

3. Unthinking action leads us into trouble.

4. Our often unconscious bias needs to be dragged out into the open for evaluation, and often more than once.  It didn’t get there overnight, and one good overhaul won’t fix it permanently.  Those new neural pathways take time.

The good news?  We carry the tools we need around with us all the time!  Our brains have the tools to change how they are wired.  Crazy, huh.  But because of our brains, we can take responsibility for how our brain is wired today, and can be changed with our intentional help, for tomorrow.

(And the reason meditation is such a hot topic, and why it is similar to prayer, is that in that quiet time, we can become aware of, and think about, and evaluate, our thoughts that we didn’t even realize we were thinking.  Because our brains are also sneaky little buggers.)

Breathing, Part II: In the pulpit

So, breathing meditation helps with fear.  How about anger?

Maybe you don’t get angry – but probably, you do.  And at inappropriate times and places.  Maybe certain issues push you over the edge and your heart is racing and your palms are sweaty and your breathing is shallow and fast.  Maybe you too can go from peaceful to raging in less than 6 seconds.

One recent Sunday afternoon found me in the pulpit of a funeral home, leading a very eclectic memorial service for a friend’s sister and brother-in-law who had died in a climbing accident.  American-born Koreans, first generation Koreans, and Koreans who just flew in for this service and didn’t speak English were joined by the yoga community to honor these two beloved people.  I was trying to hold together a multitude of world-views, traditions, faiths, and spiritual practices, and I’d be lying to say I wasn’t a tiny bit nervous and self-conscious.  We would recite the comforting 23rd Psalm along with a responsive reading from the Bhagavad Gita.  “Nothing in life or in death can separate us from the Love of the Divine,” from Paul’s letter to the Romans would be joined by chanting in sanskrit.  Then 20 minutes before the service was to begin, I was told that the pastor from a local, large, well-known non-denominational church had been invited to say a few words – Could I find a time in the service to have him speak?  Yikes.  I was not a happy camper.

My anger started to build.  I don’t much care for non-denominational pastors.  I am too Presbyterian, too connectional.  I believe pastors need outside accountability.  I believe churches need to be less pastor-centered.  Such churches present as liberal when they are anything but.  They tend to have very narrow interpretations of scripture.  They easily become all about the personality of the pastor.  But mostly, I firmly, passionately believe God calls women to ordained ministry, and take it extremely personally when told otherwise.

It’s now one minute before the service is to begin and in he walks, and I am now very ticked.  I had worked hard on this service; I was anxious; I really did not want to have Jesus shoved down people’s throats as this time, as I assumed he would.  In retrospect, I realize I did not want my Christian faith represented by him.  After introducing myself, I invited him to stand up and speak.  And my blood started boiling.  All my buttons were getting pushed – It wasn’t his fault, I just have issues with (usually men) establishing their credentials in the pulpit  – Naming his church, how long he had been there, how he knew just what people needed to hear at times like these, how Jesus loved them, how the week before he had been leading his own mother’s funeral service.  I unkindly thought, this isn’t about you, Mister!

Thankfully he spoke long enough I had plenty of time to breathe.  Deeply.  Over and over and over.  Inhale – this isn’t about me – Exhale – It still isn’t about me.  Inhale – what does it matter what he thinks about me – Exhale – It still isn’t about me.  Inhale – de-personalize.  Exhale – trust the Spirit is at work.  Inhale – I am here to help this family – Exhale – it will all be okay.  Over and over and over.  Inhale – who cares how long he’s served  – Exhale – I too am called by God.

And finally, my self-righteous anger subsided. Never mind how inappropriate or poorly timed.  When we’re angry, we’re angry, and denying we are can just make it worse.  But letting the beast be in control isn’t the way of compassion; in fact it’s downright selfish.  And so I breathed.  And so my nervous system found a balance.  And so I was able to lead the rest of the service from a place of calm and compassion.

Yep, guess I’d better keep on meditating.  Give it a try – maybe it will help you through some of your own tough times when your own less-than-best self shows up.

My Marching Band Career

I played clarinet in marching band from 7th grade through my first year of college, when I marched with the Penn State Blue Band.

However, that sentence does not accurately reflect my ineptitude at keeping the beat, marching in step, the ol’ “8 to 5” mantra of 8 steps per every five yards on the football field did not keep me from shuffling.  Sure, you CAN do 8 similarly sized steps, left foot-right foot, just like all those around you.  OR you can take 2 little steps, one giant step to keep up, them shuffle your feet to get back to the left foot-right foot of everyone around you.  I was not an asset on the field.  In fact, one star achievement, the highlight of my marching band career, was when I was chosen to march (ahem, shuffle) off the field in the opposite direction of the rest of the Blue Band because they only needed x + 1 marchers for the first half of the show, and x marchers for the second half.   Exit, stage right.  Or was that left?

Let’s just say, no sense of rhythm makes for a very bad marching band member.  And let’s just say I practiced and practiced and PRACTICED marching around my room playing “Georgia on My Mind” trying to get it right.  I succeeded in driving my parents crazy and wearing a miniature pattern in the carpet of my moves for George Washington High’s marching band half time show.  (Yea, me and the famous Jennifer Garner, marched in the same high school band.   Here’s proof: jennifer garner band

Now, more than a quarter of a century later, NPR posts a report about just why some of us can’t keep the beat.  It’s because I have a brain disorder!

” Jessica Phillips-Silver … has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and auditory development, and she says there is such a thing as beat deafness: ‘a form of musical brain disorder’.  Something as apparently simple as tapping your foot to your favorite song is, in fact, a pretty complex process.”

“One thing that we know about rhythm in the brain is that it’s managed by a kind of widespread network — which means we can’t just point our finger to one spot on the brain and say, ‘That’s the rhythm center’ or ‘That’s the dance center,’ ” she says. “It really recruits sort of a variety of areas and pulls them together in ways that are beautiful and sophisticated, but we don’t quite understand yet.”


After 8 years of piano lessons, 6 years of marching band, 4 years of private clarinet lessons, 4 years of handbell choir and 4 of church choir, I’m better.  And I could have told the researchers there’s a genetic link.  Don’t ask my dad to dance, and don’t ask either of us to sing.  All those music lessons did teach me how to match pitch, at least.  And I can sort of tell when the piano is out of tune.  (It starts to sound honky-tonk.)  But we should have known there was something not quite right about us!   So be kind to your tone deaf – rhythm oblivious brothers and sisters.  It’s all in their heads.

Pre-Teen Mortification

“Are you guys comfortable with your Korean Heritage?”  my husband asks our two kids as he drives them to middle school.  “Because, you know, I was really embarrassed by my last name and being part Korean when I was your age.”

“O, no, we like it!  We’re fine with it!” respond Ben, 8th grader and Sadie, 6th grader.  “We think it’s cool!”

“O, good,” says my mischievous husband.  “Then you won’t mind this,” as they pull into the crowded school parking lot, with all their friends and peers pouring into the front door.

And he rolls all the windows down, locks the doors, pulls a hat like this on his head – 

Turns up the cd player in the car so he can blast Korean Rap Music (This is long before Psy and Gangam Style was hip) and begins drumming out the beat on his steering wheel with a pair of chopsticks.

They were mortified.  “Let us out!”  “Stop!  Stop right now!” as they frantically try to roll up their windows and escape the torture-mobile.

We laugh about this now that both kids are 4 years older, but at the time they were NOT amused.

Remember those years of being so mortified by your parents?  I’ve thought about what might be going on in the brain that causes such a painful response when we’re pre-teens.  And I’ve wondered a couple of things:

1. There is a specific part of our brains that determine “me” and “you.” In pop psych language, we refer to “boundaries,” and we all differ in our comfort zones.   For some people, that part of the brain doesn’t distinguish me versus you as clearly as it does for others.  (The ideal is somewhere  between the two extremes of complete overlap and no overlap at all.)  Maybe for pre-teens, this part of their brain is in high over-drive of development.

2. Part of the pre-teen’s brain development is to discover, and strengthen, and claim their own sense of “me-ness,” over and beyond their parents “you-ness.”

Yet all the ways pre-teens feel embarrassed by their parents suggests an over-identification with their parents, as though their friends will hold them accountable for their parents’ actions, as though there isn’t any separation between them.  Now that’s a strange reversal, isn’t it, after all the years parents have felt judged by their child’s behavior.  (In the extreme, this “family shame” of some cultures results in brothers and fathers and uncles killing the sisters and daughters and nieces who have “brought shame” upon the family.   Could that be a “me” versus “you” conflation in our brains?)

But for the pre-teen brain, could this mortification at their parents’ mere existence be a wicked combination of two developmental tasks?

1. A frantic, desperate need to fit in, as the pre-teen brain drives its owner to form closer bonds with their own peers, the ones who will help them survive in this world (because their parents, historically, will soon be old and doddering and useless to them.)

2. Motivating that drive is an incredibly painful intolerance for being different or calling attention to themselves in any way that makes them stand out, because at this stage, standing out could threaten their survival (on the African savannahs.)

3. An increased awareness and sensitivity to just how connected they have been with their parents.  The blurring of the “me” and “you” ness of their brains that kept them alive from birth until now doesn’t serve them well at this point and into the future.  This could be because the pre-teen brain is getting better at “meta-cognition,” that is, awareness of itself.

The conclusion?  As pre-teens we are incredibly sensitive.  It’s how we make it to adulthood.  And my husband is amazingly mischievous, which used to delight, then torment, and now makes my teenagers roll their eyes.  As I always say, he makes us laugh; I get us there on time.

In the end, don’t take it personally.  Your pre-teens’ “you-ness” is not a 100% overlap with your own “me-ness.”  And it’s just the beginning.


Moral Decisions, the PCUSA, and Marriage Equality, from the Brain’s Perspective

Right now, Presbyterian delegates from around the country are debating marriage equality at the PCUSA annual meeting.

(So you know where I stand:  I’m for it.  For anyone who questions the right of two people to marry, I ask this, “Whom shall the little transgendered child in our church marry in adulthood?  Male?  Female?  Another transgendered person?  Or because of a quirk in the different alignment of brain and physical anatomical development, no one?”)

However, as I peruse my notes from the book “Braintrust:  What neuroscience tells us about morality,” I realize the challenge facing all the delegates when it comes to this vote on same sex marriage. 

Morality includes (but is not reduced to) a complex tangled web of emotions, social relationships, neuropeptides, neurotransmitters, reward/punishment circuitry, memory, experience, and knowledge.  If I were to poll any one delegate, regardless of which side of this issue they stand, (including myself,) we will all have VERY WELL-THOUGHT OUT, LOGICAL reasons for what we think is right. And maybe we do.  But we came up those reasons AFTER OUR BRAINS had already reached a conclusion based on “what feels right.”  

I know we don’t like to hear that.  It makes us sound as though we have less choice, and we’re easily manipulated, and susceptible to the “squishy-touchy-feely stuff,” and not as rational, as we like to think ourselves. “O, that may be true for HER, but I’m different,” our brains tell us.  Well, sorry, but no.  It’s one of the most pernicious blind spots of our brains.

Below the surface of awareness, our delegates’ brains will be constantly assessing – Other delegates, the vibe in the room,how they feel, the friends they’ve made, the friends back home, even if they think they already know how they will vote.   But if we are truly a people of faith, then it’s okay:  We Presbyterians put a lot of faith in the Spirit to bring us in line with the Gospel when we gather for prayer.   (At our worst, we just give it lip service, and aren’t open to change, but that’s our anxiety, not the Spirit’s fault.)

We learn from childhood through rewards and punishments and mimicry what is right and what is wrong.  The pain of disapproval and the threat of ostracism keep us “in line.” As adults, we think we’ve chosen this for ourselves, but remember, our minds are made up and THEN we gather our arguments.  (I know – you’re brain is arguing with me right now.)  Plus, our long-term relationships hold sway, and strengthen our moral fortitude.

But we know society shifts – And sometimes at lightning speed – Like, for instance, with same sex marriage.  How does that happen? If you’ve read Sue Monk Kidd’s book “The Invention of Wings” (and if you haven’t, get on your library’s wait list NOW) then, what made those two historical sisters risk everything to fight for abolition and then women’s rights?  Even at the cost of their family, friends, hometown, income, status?  

I don’t think neuroscience has completely answered this yet.  But, I think relationships with people different from us is the catalyst.   Those who say, “This is not right,” have somehow managed to connect with the “other,” outside of their original tribe.  They’ve imagined life in “the other’s shoes,” and that connection starts to chip away at what we’ve taken for granted about morality.  Even as those relationships outside our kin risk our relationships with our kin.  In Braintrust, connecting with those considered of “low status and unworthy…… is taken by others as a sign of (our) poor judgment…(p161.)  (To me, this sounds like Jesus.)  The connection with the “other” becomes more powerful, so that our feeling of their pain and wanting to alleviate that becomes greater than the fear of our own pain if we’re shunned.  

O, and more simply, sleep deprivation, and hunger, and social stress, (does this describe the Presbyterian delegates?) all negatively impact our ability to attune to the “other,” as our brain’s energy becomes more self-survival focused.  

Sometimes what I learn about our brains’ functioning inspires me, and awes me, and other times, I HAVE to trust in God, because our brains seem so limited and fallible, surely it takes the Almighty to bring justice, ever, in spite of ourselves.  

In the meantime, I shall hold all delegates, PCUSA churches, and all of us, in the light of God.

Neuroscience and Christian Scripture

Let’s apply neuroscience to scripture!  Yay!  I love cross-disciplinary discussions.  

I’m guessing that most people just clicked away after the first sentence.  But for the 3 of you left:

You know that Scripture is a dicey topic.  My published researcher PhD sister Rebecca reminds me the science community thinks all Christians are probably Rick Santorum.   This is not a compliment, but rather evidence for why we (people of the Christian faith) must be nutty.  

Do folk of other religious traditions get the same bad rap?  Somehow, I suspect not.  Because you don’t see many – any? in the Jewish faith claiming “intelligent design” is a viable scientific theory deserving of public school resources.  And that’s just one example.  Maybe because their flock is more intelligent?  (To my friend Rabbi Jill:  What say you?  See her work at http://www.ravjill.com/the-jewish-mindfulness-network/)

On the other hand, many, if not most, Christians dismiss science as irrelevant to faith.  In spite of how neuroscience supports the power of prayer, or how quantum mechanics supports a theological perspective on creation, or any of the other amazing intersections of faith and science.  

And few Christians of whatever brand can agree to what our shared text means.  That, at least, is universal: Whatever sacred text we read, we all miss the point a lot of the time.  We just differ in the humility of our claims. But that sure doesn’t stop us from getting into lots of fights about it, and people can’t run away fast enough, assuming there’s nothing of value in the Christian Bible.

But, well, my number one job responsibility is to figure out what to say on Sunday mornings, using one of the four scheduled scripture texts of the common lectionary.

Preaching:  I love it; It’s a burden; I hate it; I’m astounded by it; I dread it:

Be inspiring! Don’t be boring!  Be practical!  Make God/divine love come alive for us!  Make us FEEL the Spirit!

It’s quite a job description.

So, I thought, why not see what new angle my (admittedly limited & simplistic) study of neuroscience might reveal in the text?  Maybe other folk would be interested as well!  Even though the science community isn’t thrilled to talk with a “person of the cloth,” neither is the institutional church all that excited by the implications of scientific research on the practice of faith.  O well. To me, it’s a fun exercise.  So my goal is to offer a “neurological” perspective on one of the lectionary passages on the weeks I am preparing a sermon.  Which is most weeks.  

Maybe it will help some preachers.  Maybe some who find the Christian Bible “yucky” will be pleasantly surprised.  

Let me know what you think!  


Love 2.0

I am an introvert – What we called “shy” in my childhood.  I realize this may be news to some.  I’ve been known to hop on one of my many soapboxes and dominate a conversation. But if I spot someone I know, say at the mall, and I think they haven’t seen me, my first, and sometimes second instinct, is to duck into a store to avoid a conversation.   I know, not a great trait in a pastor.  But there you go.  I’m an introvert at heart.

Then I read  Barbara Fredrickson‘s book “Love 2.0.”  Image


And then I went running, and on my way back, passed a neighbor walking her dog.  Of course, my first instinct was to wave cheerfully and keep on going.  Especially because my past interactions with her hadn’t been fun.  Her black poodle was very classy, and proper, and obedient.  Her comments about our rascally, scruffy, decidedly less obedient rescued cock-a-poo were, shall we say, haughty.  Even though we took the same yoga class, I knew I hadn’t really endeared myself to her.   So lots of reasons to keep on running.

Then I thought, “Hmmm.  Let’s try out Barbara Fredrickson’s theory, which is that to our biology and our brains, “love” is not the romantic Hollywood “happily-ever-after, but a fleeting emotion that connects us with another that can change our brain for the better.  A nutrient we need much as a steady diet of healthy food and sleep.  The science of emotion research shows that this positive connection affects our neurology and biology.  When we connect, 

       1. We mirror one another’s gestures and non-verbal cues

       2. Our biochemistry synchronizes (WILD!)

       3. Our vision literally broadens so we see more (the opposite is true when we’re threatened or angry – Our field of vision shrinks) 

       4. We share in a  moment of mutual care and concern that nourishes our brain and body.

(This is an extremely simplified take.)  

Even though this wasn’t normally someone I would seek out for connection, I knew she had fallen and hurt her wrist last week, so that gave me something to ask her.

She was so genuinely touched at my concern and my care and that I would stop running just to ask her how she was doing – WOW!  Barbara Fredrickson was right!  I felt so good, as we connected!  

Of course, she then asked if I was coming to her neighborhood gathering, and I explained I had a Sunday School class coming over at that time.  The interaction turned a bit sour as I sensed she didn’t think this was a very good reason not to attend her event. 

O well.  I also know that in order for these moments to have lasting impact, I have to focus on the positive feelings our connection generated and really take in how good it felt.  And let the good of the experience move me out of my comfortable and safe cocoon of introversion to actually notice and be kind to the people around me, strangers and friends alike.  It’s good for their health; it’s good for my health.  

So say something nice to the check-out clerk, or the dry cleaner, or your child’s teacher, or even your spouse.  It’s good for you, body, brain, soul and mind.