How God Changes Our BrainsPosted: April 14, 2013
SLIDE 6: TRANSFORMATION OF SAUL TO PAUL
We have two immensely important stories in our scripture today: the Story of the Transformation of Saul to Paul, and the Story of Ananias. The Conversion of Paul has been a classic of Christian Faith. Most of us have not had a dramatic and blinding spiritual experience. But our recent study of Near Death Experiences and how God can change our brains should give us a perspective on Saul’s sudden and dramatic conversion experience.
SLIDE 7: OUR BRAINS CAN BE FLOODED WITH CHEMICALS
Our brains can be flooded with chemicals as a result of illness, fasting, seizure, near death, concussion, injury, and sometimes just spontaneously, perhaps divine intervention. This flood of chemicals can permanently rewire our brains. Paul appears to have had such an experience. Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts contain tantalizing hints as to the source of his conversion experience. His “thorn in the flesh,” may have included seizures, or migraines. He may have been disciplining himself with severe spiritual exercises including prayer vigils and fasting. From a distance of 2,000 years we cannot be sure what brought on his stunning experience, including temporary blindness on the Road to Damascus. We can only say for sure his life was changed forever.
SLIDE 8: SPIRITUAL PRACTICES CAN REWIRE OUR BRAINS
Even if we have not experienced such a sudden and dramatic event as Paul, the spiritual practices of faith over time can rewire our brains. And so I would direct our attention to a quotation from the book How God Changes Our Brains. We began discussing this book around the Sharing Table on March 21st and we will finish discussing it in June, after Marianne Phillips has finished her Reiki program.
SLIDE 9: HOW GOD CHANGES OUR BRAINS
As a neuroscientist, the more I delve into the nature of the human brain, the more I realize how mysterious we are. . .
. . . I’ve learned that behind our drive to survive, there is another force, and the best word to describe it is faith. Faith not just in God, or in science or love, but faith in ourselves and each other. Having faith in the human spirit is what drives us to survive and transcend. It makes life worth living, and it gives meaning to our life. Without such hope and optimism – synonyms for what I am calling faith – the mind can easily slip into depression or despair.
SLIDE 10: FAITH IS EMBEDDED IN OUR NEURONS AND OUR GENES
Faith is embedded in our neurons and in our genes, and it is one of the most important principles to honor in our lives.
Some people put their faith in God, while others put it into science, relationships, or work. But wherever you choose to place your faith you must still confront a deeper question: What is your ultimate pursuit and dream? What do you truly desire in your life – not only for yourself, but for the world as well? And how will you begin to make that desire a reality?
SLIDE 11: GIFT IS DEVELOPED THROUGH SPIRITUAL PRACTICES
Paul was changed forever and we can be transformed as well if we are willing to honor the faith that is embedded in our neurons and genes. Like any latent ability, the gift has to be developed through spiritual practices. We are admonished to pray regularly and seek the community of faith in worship, Bible Study, and around the Sharing Table of Jesus.
SLIDE 12: STORY OF ANANIAS IS AS IMPORTANT AS PAUL
The story of Ananias is as important as the story of Paul. Paul had been struck blind by his spiritual confrontation with the Risen Christ. Just in case he didn’t get the message, spending three days unable to see brought him to his senses. He was in need of healing. He was in need of the healing power of Christ, and just to reinforce that message God needed a follower of Jesus to bring that healing to Paul. So God called on Ananias.
SLIDE 13: ANANIAS WAS PRAYING
Note that Ananias was praying when God called. I suppose God can get through to us, even when we are not praying, but spiritual practices open us to the presence of God. God called Ananias by name like Jesus called Mary by name at the empty tomb. Ananias responded with the traditional prophetic response, “Here I am Lord.” So God told Ananias what to do. But there was a problem. Ananias was afraid. And this story is a good illustration of “just because we are afraid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get us.” Saul was coming to Damascus with warrants for the arrest of any “followers of the way,” he might find there. He was authorized to bind them and bring them to Jerusalem to be tried before the Temple Court. There is considerable scholarly controversy about Paul’s mission to Damascus. It seems hardly likely that the Temple authorities could commission someone to go into a different Roman Province and kidnap people to bring them to Jerusalem for persecution. It also seems hardly likely that agents of the Temple authorities would have been sent abroad for followers of Jesus to persecute, while there was a church in Jerusalem. Perhaps Paul was going to Damascus to organize local Jews in Damascus to terrorize potential followers of Jesus. And Paul may have organized such a mission on his own without the authorization of the Temple authorities. After all Paul and his thugs had broken Stephen out of jail and stoned him to death without the authorization of the Sanhedrin. Again from a distance of 2,000 years we cannot determine exactly what was going on.
SLIDE 14: ANANIAS OVERCOMES FEAR – LOVE WINS
For the purpose of our story we just need to know that Ananias had good reason to be afraid. And so we are confronted by the question once again, what would we do, if we were not afraid? What Ananias does is incredible. He loves. He goes to Paul, and he calls him “brother.” Through faith he overcomes his fear and anger toward this person and loves him. As a result of the love Ananias extends to Paul, the very healing power of God was able to restore Paul’s eye sight, and transforms him into perhaps the greatest evangelist the church has ever known. Love wins!
SLIDE 15: CAN LOVE WIN OUT OVER OUR FEARS?
What I want to ask this morning is can love win over our fears? We have so many potential worries, anxieties, and terrors in this life. Will I be able to get a job? If I try something new, will it fail? If I follow my dream, will it all fall apart? Will I be able to save enough for retirement? Will people still like me, if they knew the truth about me? What if I fall and break something? What if I have a stroke, or a heart attack, or get cancer? Who will take care of me, if I get sick? Will there be enough? What if someone I love dies? What if I die? Life is filled with so many fears.
SLIDE 16: LIVING THE SPIRITUAL PRACTICES
Faith is embedded in our neurons and in our genes. If we follow that faith God can change our brains, so we can live productively, confidently, hopefully, transcending our fears. The key is living the spiritual practices that strengthen and re-enforce the spiritual gifts: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. At our Jazz/Gospel Vespers there was a list of spiritual practices in the bulletin, and I have included that list in our bulletin today, and allow me to address how some of those spiritual practices can change our lives to help us live more hopefully, joyfully, lovingly and with greater peace.
SLIDE 17: SELECTIVE ATTENTION
Personal ritual practice, meditation and prayer, can increase our ability to practice selective attention. In the Buddhist tradition this is often called mindfulness meditation. When prayer incorporates relaxation, breathing, word or sound repetition, singing, even repetitive movement and concentration the practice improves both memory and cognition. Whole body movement can even be incorporated in the practice of walking the spiritual labyrinth, while praying or singing.
SLIDE 18: IN THE ZONE
Our brains can change and even a few weeks of consistent spiritual practice will begin to change the wiring in parts of our brain. Some of these changes can even be demonstrated in differences in before and after brain scans.
Dr. Andrew Newberg writing in How God Changes Your Brain noted: In our brain-scan studies of nuns and Buddhists, we also found decreased activity in the parietal lobe. When this happens, one’s sense of self begins to dissolve, allowing the person to feel unified with the object of contemplation or intention. . . . We don’t fully understand the reason for it, but it appears that a loss of self-consciousness enhances one’s intention to reach specific goals. A loss of one’s sense of self also appears to improve one’s ability to perform a variety of tasks, with greater pleasure. In sports it’s called being “in the zone,” and in psychology, this state of optimal experience is called “flow.”
SLIDE 19: COMMUNITY AND COMPASSION
Personal spiritual practices are important to developing healthy minds and spirits. Another dimension of spiritual development, however, brings us into the experience of community. Compassion appears to be an evolutionary adaptive process, and our neurological “heart” appears to be in the anterior cingulate. . . . It helps to maintain a delicate balance between our feelings and our thoughts, and is the newest part in the evolutionary history of the brain. . .
The anterior cingulate appears to be crucial for empathy and compassion, and many brain-scan studies of meditation show that this part of the brain is stimulated by such practices. . . We can use spiritual practices to become less hostile and greedy and more compassionate toward others.
SLIDE 20: DEVELOPING COMPASSION THROUGH DIVERSITY
Part of participating in a diverse faith community is the development of compassion. Learning how to overcome our fears, “work it out,” with all those other people in the community who are not like us. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here is the goal of a compassionate community. In addition learning to pray with and for other people, even people who are different from us, even people, even people we don’t like, helps us to extend our circle of compassion. And by the way becoming open minded does not mean our brains will fall out.
SLIDE 21: COMPASSION MARKS THE CULTURAL DIVIDE
I would suggest the great divide in world culture today is compassion. We have a choice between a culture that cares for other people, welcomes everyone, motivates us to share and embraces non-violence, or a culture that encourages selfishness, sees those who are different from us as the enemy and embraces violence and exclusion as the primary methods of resolving conflict.
SLIDE 22: A FAITH WORTH SHARING
As we pray, meditate, engage together in positive spiritual practices, worship, praying with and for each other, welcoming everyone no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey, in our life together as a community of faith we overcome our fears and promote compassion. And that is a faith that can change the world and is worth sharing.