Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Pruning



Our brains do a curious thing. They make themselves stronger by destroying their own tissue. It is called synaptic pruning and it can happen in fits and starts but there are also major events that occur during childhood. In simplest terms the brain grows then cuts back that growth to manage it. During these times of pruning the brain and behavior are challenged as the brain adds on new thinking capacity and shuts down others while the brain is under construction.  Think about how much a major building remodel at work or the addition of a room on your house has an impact on your life. For a temporary time, things don’t work in a normal way and when construction is done, you must adjust to something new.  

Brain pruning gives us a whole new perspective on toddlers and teens. Their brains are undergoing a major remodel and new things are just around the corner. Living with the remodel, however, can be a challenge. We must remember that brain pruning is necessary for growth and health. If our brains did not prune we would be a mess of too many synaptic connections and no good pathway for learning to proceed. The brain seeks to be orderly and works more efficiently if there are familiar pathways to connect to what we use.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. John 15: 1-2

The Bible does not talk about pruning synapses but it does use a different kind of pruning analogy. In vine pruning we are the branches that need to be cut back to allow for better growth.  Plants such as vines and bushes that go unpruned do not yield well because there are too many competing branches and stems leaving little room for grapes or roses. The growth of these plants needs to be directed and managed.

One thing we know about brain pruning is that our brain becomes what we do. The things we spend the most time doing are the pathways that get strengthened. The things we spend little time doing are the synapses that get pruned. If children read, play music, garden, or compete in sports, for example, their brains will get better at these activities. If they spend huge amounts of time doing less than healthy things, their brains will get good at those activities, instead.  Children need a good gardener during the pruning process.

This same advice holds true for adults. We need a benevolent gardener to guide the pruning process of our faith. It is not fun when we are being pruned. It can hurt when God is cutting out a bad habit, directing our growth in a new way, or snipping off the dead twig of the self-pity we want to cling to. It is not easy. It is frustrating. It is all about getting used to loss and adjusting to what is new. We can often react like toddlers in a fit of frustration, or like teenagers we can become defiant.

In spite of what we may say, we don’t want to grow out of our sin and misery.

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. John 15: 4-6

God’s word is our best faith pruning tool. Without God’s word we might grow in the wrong direction much like a child who does little else but play video games. Without abiding in God, by studying His word we will not bear fruit, plain and simple. Not only do we need God’s word in our lives, but we need a steady diet of it. We need it at church, at home, with friends, and in the early morning hours of quiet contemplation. We need to abide in God.

The blessing of God’s word is not only stronger pathways in our faith, but a renewed understanding of God’s grace in our life. We begin to see the world, see others around us, and see our life circumstances in a different way. We see God glorified in our life.

By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As The Father has loved Me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my live, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. John: 8-11



Friday, March 30, 2018

Clean





One of my favorite podcasts is Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain from NPR. On a recent podcast, called “Crickets and Cannibals,” he was interviewing Rachel Herz on the topic of disgust. Rachel has written a book called That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion. In this book she poses an interesting idea. She contends that while we are not disgusted by the fact that we have saliva in our mouth when we drink a glass of water, we would be less eager to drink that glass of water after spitting in it. Her research into disgust tells her that we experience this emotion when something from the outside that is contaminated threatens to come inside of us. This fear works to keep us safe and it is so strong we even fear contaminating ourselves with our own spit.

I am eyeing my toothbrush in a whole new way.

Disgust is thought to be a basic emotion, likely one we are born with. Even though disgust is a basic emotion we are taught how to use that emotion. For instance, most people I know would be disgusted by the thought of eating insects, but that is not true of a rather large segment of the world’s population. We learn what is disgusting from the people around us. It is as if we have this unspoken agreement about what could possibly contaminate.

It is not just possible food items that make us feel disgust. Moral disgust is when we are disgusted by behavior. This is also learned – but the internet suggest to me it is not learned very consistently. The idea behind moral disgust is that we do not want to be around people who do things that go against our moral code because we fear their actions will rub off on us. To a certain extent that is true. We may not begin to behave like that person but we will likely loosen our moral behavior about other things and certainly our reputation may be tarnished.

Human beings typically have a strong sense of moral disgust unless the bad behavior in question comes from a favorite movie star, sports figure, or politician. Then we are quick to make excuses. I guess we don't worry about contamination if we get something else that we want such as entertainment or political power.

During Holy week we celebrate the Last Supper. Here is an event full of potential disgust. The disciples are not aware that soon they will be ashamed to be associated with Jesus. Judas shows behavior full of disgust for his Messiah and later hangs himself from a tree out of disgust for what he did. Then to top it off, Jesus asks the disciples to eat His flesh and drink His blood.

Yet, when Jesus teaches us this sacrament it is anything but disgusting. It is an act of sacrifice, it is forgiveness, it is mercy. In this instance something from the outside does not contaminate us. Instead it is something good that will spread in us and overtake the contamination of sin.

While spit can contaminate a glass of water,  a drop of clean water will not decontaminate a glass of spit. Yet Jesus’ body and blood does just that. It washes away all evidence of our sin. It leaves us standing clean before God.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew 26: 26-28

God takes something disgusting and makes it sacred. He takes us, steeped in the sin that comes from inside us, and makes us white as snow.

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD; though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Isaiah 1:18

Because of our beautiful Savior all that is disgusting within us has been made clean.

May your Easter be blessed by this joyful truth.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Building Relationships



https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=135&v=8WbxbqwdWog

Camera Goes on Japanese Sushi Conveyor Belt




Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15

I came across this video taken by a go pro camera and I am not sure if I should be amused or depressed. The camera rode on a conveyer belt in a sushi restaurant in Japan and filmed a few seconds of the lives of about 40 people. (Warning: obscene gesture.)

I was struck by how many people were sitting, presumably with friends, but with their attention on their phones or tablets. I watched a second time and counted. It turns out that nearly 40% of the people caught on film were sitting with humans but spending time on devices.

*Sigh*
Now I will admit that I spend plenty of time on the computer and I refuse to put any game apps on my smartphone because I know I will not have the necessary self-discipline to stay away. But, these people are at a restaurant – with friends or family! They are not sitting on a train, or waiting in a line. They are eating out which typically is done for entertainment – or at least human engagement.

How important are our screens to us? Way too important if you ask me.

Every aspect of social media and other apps are specifically designed to draw us in and keep us there. The more time we spend on our devices the more ads we see and that generate revenue. These apps have a vested interest in keeping us absorbed and we apparently have little or no desire to resist. I am remembering that in American Sign Language the concept of temptation is signed by reaching one hand around the other to tap on your elbow. Social media and other enticements on our phones certainly give a constant tap of encouragement to capture our attention.

It would seem to me that spending too much time on your phone is not the biggest problem.  Instead, it is what we are not doing while our devices have our brains held captive.

We aren’t engaged in our world. We aren’t sharing God’s love in the form of interacting with those around us. We aren’t showing empathy, helping others, or even thinking of other people while we are playing a game or checking a social media account. We are totally absorbed in being disengaged.

My work with resilience has shown me that our relationships with each other -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- are important to our ability to survive and thrive. We depend on each other and benefit from each other, even when we think we are doing it alone. 

God created us to be in fellowship with Him and with each other.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. Philippians 2:1-4

God gave us each other. It is His desire for us to care for each other, cry, laugh, believe, and do His work with each other. We cannot accomplish any of this without God. We also cannot accomplish any of this without a relationship with each other.

We don’t have relationships simply because we are related, live close, work, or worship together. We have relationships because we spend time together and because our shared experiences build a strong bond. We need to have many kinds of experiences, good experiences, bad experience, deep experiences and frequent ones. We need to invest in relationships so the relationship is strong when it is needed.

Consider Job and his friends:

And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. Job 2:13

We can argue that Job’s friends did him little good with their words, but their presence in his suffering was important. They were there with him even if they could do nothing to relieve his pain and despair. This friendship was not forged over social media or by neglect. It was formed by many interactions over time and each of these interactions was present in this event.

God’s attention for us is all-encompassing and it is constant. He always knows our needs and often meets them before we realize we are in want. His relationship with us is built on the love of a perfect Father willing to sacrifice His Son for a relationship with his rebellious children. Nothing tempts Him away from us.

While we cannot form perfect relationships with each other, we can allow God's love for us to direct our relationships with others. Such friendships take work, but they can be entertaining along the way. It is good to remember that even when we struggle in relationships the process of forgiveness can make the bond even stronger.

God will bless our relationships with the people He places in our lives. God sees everything in our lives as having potential to bring us closer to Him.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Worthy



For years now I have been trying to make a living through contract work and I fear I am not up to the task. It is not because I don’t have the skills, but rather because I don’t have the thick skin necessary to survive. 

I have been blessed to work with many good people. I have met many servants of God who labor to put on great conferences. I treasure the words of encouragement from audience members, my students, and from those who have read my work. I try to focus on this evidence that God has a plan for the work He sets before me and that He brings that plan to fulfillment.

Yet, the sinner in me, the part of me that doubts, has not seemed to develop that necessary thick skin. I cannot count the number of institutions that have treated me poorly. I have had contracts cancelled without warning, contracted work changed in mid-stream, expectations of free work, contracts that are all law and no grace, and a horrible lack of any kind of communication that seems to come with the expectation that I can read minds. These actions often come after I am told that my work is valued.

A contract worker is easy to blame, easy to gossip about, and easy to dismiss because there will be no awkward moments in the break room. Besides we cannot be very good at what we do if we are willing to do it for so little pay. We are granted little worth. 

Yet, what is my worth in this world? Why do I tie it to compensation, accomplishments, or the way I am treated? 

A few weeks ago we sang a beautiful song in church called “My Worth is Not in What I Own.”  I have the video bookmarked and I listen to the song nearly every day. Like a child asking for the same book to be read over and over, again, I have more to learn.
 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfFrJHuptUQ
(c) 2014 Getty Music Publishing and Make Way Music

My worth is not in what I own; my place in this world does not matter.
 
My worth is not in what I accomplish; anything I accomplish is God’s work, not mine.

My worth is not in who I vote for; my identity is found in my God-given faith.

My worth is not in my social media posts; my actions speak louder than my words and only God can cause a heart to change.

My worth is not in how I am treated; my sins tell me what treatment I deserve.

Ash Wednesday is a good day for me to set aside my pouting and my doubt. Here, God teaches me an important lesson about my worth. He reminds me that I am not worthy of the love He showers on me. I am not worthy of what Christ has done for me. I do not need a thick skin; I need a tender heart that seeks God’s mercy. 

Two wonders here that I confess
My worth and my unworthiness
My value fixed - my ransom paid
At the cross

And He does indeed shower me with mercy. Christ has taken on my unworthiness and replaced it with healing and peace.

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed, Isaiah 53:3-5



Wednesday, February 7, 2018

More than a Rescue

http://www.klkntv.com/category/190066/klkn-channel-8-video?&clipId=14107119&autostart=true



So this happened.

My mom and my sister ended up on the local nightly news.

No danger of it being a perp walk, but it was documenting a walk of a different kind.

Several months ago, my mom fell. She is an 83 year old with fairly severe osteoporosis and her doctor determined the spinal fracture would not likely heal. He predicted she would go to rehab and not return to her assisted living facility. He was, in essence, sentencing her to a wheelchair.

My sister stepped out of her caregiver role and took on the role of advocate. She works at a hospital and spoke with doctors there to be sure that the diagnosis was correct.

Turns out it wasn’t. A new test was performed, a new surgical procedure was scheduled and the result is my mom’s pain is gone and she is once again able to walk. The more she moves, the longer she is likely to live. She has been given a new lease on life. She does not have a bad primary care doctor; he just didn’t have any other options for her. She needed an advocate who could search for that option.

I am happy to say that I am one older sister who now must admit she is glad her little sister has stubborn tenacity.

As I am reading through the Old Testament I am reminded of the stubborn tenacity that God has for us. Just like the Israelites wandering in the desert, I walk through daily miracles of modern-day-manna and still turn to God with a whining tone that betrays a lack of trust.

In spite of this, God displays a stubborn tenacity to advocate for me. He cares for me. He loves me unconditionally. He creates a plan for my life and for my salvation that is more than what I can imagine, more than what I can hope for, and certainly more than what I deserve.

My mother’s spinal procedure rescued her from pain, but it did more than that. It also restored her ability to walk which likely lengthened her life.

God is our healer, but He is so much more than that. The God who advocates for us sees beyond the need to rescue and sees our desperate need for redemption.

Think of God’s blessings to the Israelites even after their repeated rebellion:

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you: the LORD lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-26

God’s desire is to both rescue us from the slavery of our sin and to redeem us as His own children:

You have led in your steadfast love the people you have redeemed: You have guided them by Your strength to Your holy abode. Exodus 15:13