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.

Jesus’ Anne Lamot Moment and Parenting Teenagers

Like every single parent out there, I have great kids.  I do!  Just ask anyone.  The thing is, they are teenagers.  And because lots of people who read this blog also know my kids, I will protect their privacy and just say that our house is not immune to the travails and trials that parents of teenagers go through.  Notice I said the parents, not the trials and travails that teens go through.  Recent research suggests that this time of life isn’t hard, or stressful, or full of the sturm und drang I learned about in Psych 101.  At least not for the teens.  It’s the parents who struggle.  I don’t know for sure how my parents who had  3 teenage girls at the same time did it.  But wow, do I have compassion for all those families whose struggles are of the more extreme teenage type.  Because it’s hard enough with the normal stuff.

This week’s scripture is from Matthew 10:42, where Jesus says that even giving a cup of cold water to someone in need is ministry.  I love this. How Anne Lamot of him!  She is always talking about giving people cups of cold water.  To be perfectly honest, living a faithful life can feel so, well, hard.  Let alone being a faithful parent, whatever that might be.  But a cup of cold water?  Whew.  That I can do.  

And Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s research at UNC backs up Jesus’ command about cups of cold water.  She says that every small act of kindness and connection we make with another human being changes our physiology – not just our brain – to make us more resilient.  Kindness, even the teensy tiny kind, can strengthen our immune system, lower our blood pressure, calm our heart rate, and forge new neural pathways to make us more compassionate.  How great is that!

And so today’s kindness is challenge is this:  Because the parents of teenagers are living with those same teenagers, sometimes we don’t see our kids the way the rest of the world does.   Actually, this is true for all parents.  We miss the forest in the midst of the daily struggles to get those trees to grow more or less straight.  And we forget, or don’t see, or don’t know, how great our kids are.   If you have the opportunity today to let a parent know something good or amazing or just nice that their kid did, let them know.  That’s like a cup of cold water when we’re trudging through the desert wilderness of parenting.  And also, let your parents know you are grateful they let you survive until you grew up, because it was hard on them.  That too, is a cup of cold water, even if it’s overdue.  

So thanks, Judy and Bob, for not sending all of us to a convent, or shipping us out to the wilderness, or leaving us on an desert island ’til we were “cooked,” as someone in my church calls it.  I had no idea how tempted you must have been.  And congrats.  You did well.  And I know it’s too little but hopefully not too late:  I apologize for how much my teenage self took for granted!  Now I know.  

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!  


Today’s Neuroscience Scripture

Did you remember learning in your Psych 101 class about those poor baby monkeys who were separated from their monkey-mothers and given a wire “monkey” to snuggle?  Those poor monkeys didn’t turn out so well.  What I didn’t know until now was that some of those baby monkeys got an intervention when they were older.


monkey in brazil, by amy

Dr. Harlow, the researcher, had already experimented sending these mother-less monkeys back into the extended monkey family, and their behaviors were heart-wrenching.  (I never could have survived as an animal researcher.)  They isolated themselves in a corner and rocked, having no idea how to interact with live monkeys.  So, the famous researcher staged an intervention:  He took these mother-less monkeys, now older, and gave them monkey therapists – Yes, you read that right – Each of those now teenage monkeys was given a child monkey therapist to hang with – And those child monkeys taught those teen monkeys how to be monkeys again.  

The happily-bonded child monkeys who’d been fortunate enough to stay with their mothers knew what it was to connect and bond.  These kid monkeys were naturally quite curious about this withdrawn sullen angst-ridden teenage monkey, (who had every reason to be sullen, wouldn’t you say, after being raised by wire mesh?  This does not explain stereotypical North American middle class teen angst, however.  I’m hoping Daniel Siegel’s upcoming book, “Brainstorm” does.  Stay tuned)  So, these kid monkeys started checking out their new friends.  Even if they were met with that familiar teenage primate snub (do teen monkeys roll their eyes, too?), those kid monkeys were persistent – They would climb on their new friends, and chatter with them, and snuggle and hug them.  And over time – A lot of time – those teenaged monkeys learned how to be monkeys, again – Part of the monkey family.  Those kid monkeys had rewired those teen monkeys’ brains.

If you are at all familiar with your Bible – Even if all you do is go to church on high holy days, surely you know the saying, “…..and a child shall lead them.” (From the prophet Isaiah 11:6)  How can you not think about that when you hear of these kid monkeys rescuing their damaged teen monkey friends?

It’s all in the interpersonal neurobiology (how our minds shape and are shaped by others) and the brain’s neuroplasticity.  Spend some time with kids – They may just rewire your brain – I mean, in a good way.