Remaking the People of GodPosted: September 9, 2013
Remaking the People of God
VISIONS RIGHT OUT THERE IN PLAIN SIGHT
Every once in a while God puts visions right out there in plain sight. Only thing is most of us can’t see them, even when they are right in front of us. A number of years ago I saw a sign. We were visiting the beach at the Indiana dunes. The lake was unusually high that year, and the waves had undercut a dune that had a house on top of it. So much of the dune had fallen away, part of the foundation of the house had fallen down the dune to the water’s edge. There flapping in the breeze underneath what was left of the house was a curtain that had hung in the basement window, only now the rest of the window was gone having fallen into the lake. The house was precariously perched on a cliff of sand, and the image immediately reminded me of the institutional church. With the foundation of the church eroding out from underneath it, it was only a matter of time before the structure fell with no base to hold it up.
POTTER AND THE CLAY
In our scripture this morning Jeremiah was watching a potter at work. As the wheel turned the workman prodded the clay into the shape of a vessel. But as the jar neared completion the potter noted a fatal flaw in the clay that would result in a crack, when the vessel was fired. So the workman beat down the vessel, added some additional material, re-centered the clay on the wheel, added water, and then he began to refashion the container. Watching that simple scene Jeremiah realized he was witnessing God’s message for Israel. The potter and his wheel were a metaphor. Israel was fatally flawed and would never withstand the test of spiritual firing. So God was about to unmake the people of Israel. The faulty vessel would have to be collapsed, new material added, perhaps some additional water applied and the clay centered and reshaped into a new and better vessel of the divine spirit that would withstand the test of firing in the kiln of judgment.
UNMAKING CAN BE UNPLEASANT AND PAINFUL
This was bad news for Israel. The experience of unmaking was going to be painful –defeat, conquest, deportation and slavery were no fun. If we concentrate too much on the pain of unmaking, however, we might miss the good news of the potter’s wheel. For the original clay was not thrown away, thrown out and trodden underfoot. Rather the defective vessel was reformed and remade into a thing of beauty and usefulness and a symbol of hope and wonder.
HOPE FOR ALL OF US
I think in the metaphor of the potter and the clay there is hope for all of us. All of us are precious children of God. Like Adam we are all fashioned from the dust of the earth. We are created for beauty with purpose, because God don’t make junk. But sometimes in the molding of our beings flaws can be found that will not withstand the firing of the kiln. Sometimes we have to be unmade in order to be remade.
WE ALL RESIST CHANGE
All of us resist change. As Bill Tucker says, “change is bad.” “Change is hard.” The pain of unmaking of changing prompts us to shrink back from the very experiences that might address our flaws. After all the problem cannot really be us, it must be someone or something else. I don’t want to claim that God causes bad things to happen to good people, so we might become better – become better for having been worse. I don’t believe God sends us misfortune. Life has enough inherent challenges God doesn’t have to inflict pain upon us. But when life presents us with challenges – illness, death of friends or loved ones, financial distress, loss of a job, divorce, depression – we can all ask, “What can I learn from this?” Asking that question is likely to lead us to change, and we are more likely to recover from the life accident that has overtaken us, than if we spend our time looking for other people to blame. As Bill Tucker says, “the first step in any successful process is identifying someone else to blame.” Bill is full of all kinds of great wisdom on our walks.
WE DON’T HAVE TO PLAY THE BLAME GAME
We don’t have to blame ourselves, but we do need to learn what life can teach us from the challenges that present themselves to us. For the definition of crazy is doing the same things over and over again, and expecting different results. Part of assuming responsibility is acknowledging that in most circumstances, our own behavior is the only factor we can control. In the end the pain of change is less than suffering prolonged and continued failure. We have to be unmade in order to be remade.
And sometimes we are unmade not because of anything we’ve done wrong, but our lives present us with natural life passages like adolescence, graduation, job changes, getting married, becoming parents, retirement, aging.
WE EXPECT THE WORST
Part of our problem with change is we have a built in bias to expect the worst. Researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that negative information has a greater impact on the brain than positive information. As a quick self-test of this concept, imagine that you won a $500 gift certificate to your favorite store. How would you feel? Now imagine, instead of winning the gift “certificate, you lost $500. Research indicates that the intensity of our response to each of these situations will differ significantly, with the distress of losing $500 far outweighing the pleasure of gaining $500.
This outcome is so common that researchers have given it a name: the “negativity bias.” The negativity bias is a result of the of the fight-or-flight response that is activated only during negative experiences – Murphy’s third law, if anything can go wrong it will. So even if we don’t have a natural tendency toward pessimism or depression, the negativity bias conditions our reaction to change – all change will be bad. But if life is full of natural change, how can we learn to adapt? How can we open ourselves to the process of unmaking and remaking?
ADAPT RATHER THAN RESIST
First, we can approach the prospect of change by understanding that change is. It is no one’s fault. We don’t have to cast blame upon others. Our anxiety and distress in the presence of change can be managed with faith. We have to trust God rather than our fears. God has given us the ability to survive, even thrive if we can let go of the past, that God will be with us in the future and adapt rather than resisting change.
Second, we can learn from the potter and the clay. The first step in reforming our lives is centering. We have to become centered in meditation and prayer. Meditative practice feeds the part of our brains that are most adaptive, while quieting the centers in the brain that feed on anxiety and fear. Prayer helps us to connect with the divine presence that reassures us that God is with us now and in the future. Even when we are facing the prospect of the changes that come with death, we can have the assurance that nothing not even death can separate us from the love of God. Become centered in meditation and prayer.
FLEXIBLE AND PLIABLE
Third, we can learn from the clay to remain flexible and pliable. We can only be remade, if we yield to the hand of the creator. And part of the good news is that even our brains can be flexible and pliable even into old age – neuroplasticity. Aerobic exercise, meditation, yoga, worship and other spiritual exercises help to increase cognition, memory and reinforce those areas of the brain that promote adaptability. Intentionally exposing ourselves to new experiences and ideas through books, studies, discussion groups promotes neuroplasticity.
SMALL IMPROVEMENTS, FAITH, SPIRITUAL FRIENDS
So why do we continue to resist change? The authors of our book How God Changes Your Brain offer us some insight:
. . . many people resist doing these spiritual exercises, even when they feel an improvement in cognitive function and mood. Why? . . . After spending decades building a somewhat stable personality to handle life’s tribulations, the brain is hesitant to alter its underlying beliefs. . .
It took your brain decades to form these habits, and it’s not easy to turn them off. Old neural circuits do not disappear, especially if they are tinged with negative or stressful memories. In fact, it takes a lot of metabolic energy to grow new dendrites and axons or rearrange synaptic connections that have been firmly established over the years. Furthermore, any disruption in old neural patterns creates a certain degree of anxiety in the brain. That old limbic system, which is largely responsible for maintaining synaptic stability, is not as flexible as the creative frontal lobes. Thus, it’s easy to dream up a new idea, but exceedingly difficult to get the rest of the brain to comply. Even if you succeed in changing different aspects of your personality, don’t be surprised if old patterns of behavior reassert themselves from time to time.
So what is the solution to this neural resistance to change? Mark and I recommend three things: a conscious commitment to make a small improvement every day, a good dose of social support to help you honor that commitment, and a hefty serving of optimism and faith.
Oh, and one other thing: a willingness to practice, at the very least, for a few minutes every day. With practice, you can build up to twenty to forty minutes a day, which may be the ideal range of time to enhance the neural functioning of your brain.
REMADE BY THE HAND OF THE CREATOR
Meditate, pray, develop a community of good spiritual friends who will pray with you and for you, and share with your faith community the challenges you face. As people of God we can be remade by the hand of the creator with prayer and a little help from our friends.