Posted in Different Scriptures

an experiment in prayer.

Take a deep breath for a moment, and prepare yourself to read the next few paragraphs slowly. As far as you are able, silence the noises and distractions in your environment. Acknowledge the noises you cannot silence, and set them aside mentally for now. Be sure you’re sitting comfortably in your chair.

Relax your body as far as you are able to, while still being able to read these words. Take another deep breath, but slower this time. Notice the breath entering your lungs, and become aware of the way God has created your brain to respond to increased levels of oxygen in your bloodstream from such a deep breath. It helps you to relax. Slow, deep breathing helps offer you a time and space where you step out of the routine for this moment. You step out of the pace of what needs to be accomplished, and what is depending on you, and allow yourself simply to “be” here and now.

I want you to imagine a leaf, which is easy to do right now because it is Autumn. Imagine all the colors you’ve seen recently, or look out the window for a moment to see what colors are visible there. Remember the warmth of summer, when all was green. Then the trees begin to change slowly, so that some of them are deep brown even now. Maybe you have seen, or can see even now – bright oranges, yellows, deep reds, and all hues and shades in between. Imagine what the trees will look like in the middle of winter – bare, branches blowing in the cold wind. They will be seemingly lifeless, as the flow of life within has slowed in order to survive until the higher temperatures return.

I want you to take another deep breath, and all yourself to examine your response to the question: What is the flow of spiritual life within you these days? Slow down for a moment. You are the only one who can guide yourself forward at a pace that offers this moment to God.

Maybe you feel vibrant and green.

You have experienced the shining of the sun, and the warmth of relationship both with God and others that have contributed to feeling like life is flowing into all the areas of who you are.

But possibly, there are parts of you…and possibly even the whole, that has begun to slow down internally.

The harsh conditions you have experienced in the world have made you feel cold. The flow of life seems to have slowed down. Some of it seems natural, and you can see the beauty in the changes of color as you experience the ebbs and flows of life, experiencing the natural seasons of living in a broken world. But it’s also possible the flow seems to have stopped to the point where it’s hard to find the beauty even in the leaves that remain, because they appear to be dried and falling already.

It happens so slowly, you may not even notice until this moment – taking time to examine the life and Spirit within you.

Even as you assess and allow yourself to be vulnerable to….yourself, the false statements begin to surface. Accusations to make you feel guilty or a sense of shame. “You haven’t done enough.” “You didn’t have such life within you to begin with.” “Such an experience isn’t possible, or is only for others.”

These are lies from the accuser. They have no place here. Imagine unplugging that speaker, or crumpling up the paper such words are written on, and tossing them in the garbage.

Instead, hear these words: (continue to read slowly – your tendency here will be to scan quickly through these words…but read them slowly, as if directly from God for you in this moment, with His intent to bring refreshment & healing to your soul)

“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Rev. 3:20) “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28) “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing…If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.  As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:5, 7-11)

Know that metaphors are limited, and you are not a tree. Smile at how silly that sounds, and yet how important it is in this moment. Because it means you do not have to wait until a better external season for life to return. You do not have to wait until conditions are less harsh, to invite the life of the Holy Spirit that is available to you right now, to flow within you – bearing fruit that offers healing.

Not by any special effort, although it may make you want to respond in particular ways. But it begins simply by allowing yourself to be Loved by a God who has reconciled you to Himself already, and forgiven everything that could have separated you previously.

Spend a moment being thankful for such Love.

Come back as often as needed, and especially when you forget such a need exists.

Amen.

Posted in Different Books, Different Learning

With All Your Mind…

Long ago, I discovered the spiritual connections and benefits of staying connected to neurological research.  Many of the same things have continued to provide helpful connections in personal devotionyouth ministry, and as we’ve grown in areas of parenting, and especially parenting a child who had experienced trauma before arriving in our home.   It doesn’t make us experts, and these are not magic, but they certainly help give us a better understanding as we seek to be faithful with all God has given us.

So it is no surprise that I loved discovering the “Healthy Mind Platter” developed by David Rock & Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.  It was discussed in Sissy Goff’s newest book “Raising Worry-Free Girls“.  It makes sense, especially as we increase our understanding of how connected our neurological health is to every other aspect of our body & being.  Many of us were raised knowing we needed to pay attention to a healthy diet: a specific amount of grains, meats, fruits/veggies, dairy, etc.  But with a better understanding of our brains, comes an understanding of “diet” we are feeding our minds as well.  The creators don’t suggest a specific amount of time for each category, but the understanding is that each individual may have particular needs for their own health.   Each category comes with its own benefits, and our brains (& neuro-chemistry) respond accordingly in ways that help bring long-term health conditions that impact our entire being.  They’ve broken the categories into (in no particular order):

  • Physical Time (exercise):  Aerobic activity helps increase the oxygen levels in the blood, which contributes to brain health in important ways.  “Exercise releases endorphins, which are neurotransmitters produced in the brain that reduce pain.  Exercise also increases the serotonin…which is often known as the “happy Chemical” (Goff, 2019)
  • Time In (introspection/silent prayer/mindfulness): Reflect on what has happened, what is happening. This is time without screens on, where there is space to be aware. Time here could also be spent reading and/or writing.
  • Focused Time (learning/purposeful): This is time to grow or nurture a skill or study a subject.   This helps build focus and makes or strengthens new connections in the brain.
  • Connecting Time (in-person/ eye-to-eye contact): Especially in a “virtually connected” world, this can be important for social development, as well as neurological health.  At every age, our “mirror neurons” help contribute to our understanding of others, our ability to be compassionate, and even our self-understanding through the eyes of others.
  • Sleep Time: Healthy and consistent sleep patterns are more valuable than our production/profit-driven world often gives credit for.  This gives our hippocampus time to process memories into long-term storage, restore and organize thoughts/feelings, and reminds us spiritually that we’ve been “set free” from the brick-making patterns of Egypt.
  • Down Time: When’s the last time you let your mind wander in a healthy way?   To gaze into the falling leaves, watch water flow downstream, enjoy watching the kids play nearby, or simply lay back on the couch breathing slow?  When your mind (or the kids) say “I’m bored” – let it be cause for celebration, in our overstimulated world.  It allows time for recharging the brain’s batteries, inspires creativity, and allows contemplation.
  • Play Time: Not practicing an athletic ability, but truly “playing”.  Here we have the opportunity to exist with lowered stress levels, build problem-solving, and remember to exist child-like.  Go mini-golfing, play Chutes & Ladders, bust out the old Atari, forget who wins, and enjoy the game itself.

You can follow the links or read the books to dive deeper into any of this, but I wanted to share it simply here.  We are called by Jesus to “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” (Luke 10:27)  I hope and pray that growing in these areas will help me to be faithful with what God has given me, help me to improve as a father, as a pastor, and as a friend.  May these things be a blessing to you as well…

Posted in Different Books, Different Scriptures, Uncategorized

On a Changed Mind…

In reading Bob Goff’s “Love Does” to our children recently, I was reminded of his words urging us not to be “Stalkers” of Jesus. He points out that we often spend so much time personally, and even in our gatherings studying about Jesus/Holy Spirit/God.  But how often are we focused on simply “being with” this Triune God?  As a pastor, as a father, and especially as one who recognizes the power of God’s Love – I want to consciously spend time, and invite others into times, of being increasingly aware of the fullness of God’s Love & presence.

Recently there was a book published that contains an amazing amount of scientists, researchers, and history of people all wanting to do something similar.  The main title is “How to Change Your Mind”, and a conversation with the author on NPR caught my attention.  As someone who’s studied biblical Greek, I remembered that Jesus often called people to “repent” using the word “metanoia” which literally means “having a changed mind”.  The unpopularity of this book in Christian circles might be caused by its subtitle, “What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence”.  The awkwardness of my preconceptions of psychedelics pushed-aside, I went ahead and read it anyways.

Wow.  The history of these substances and the opportunities for research beginning to resurface has a great deal to offer the brokenness of humanity.  Researchers are just in the past 8 years, finally and slowly/clinically, beginning to proceed cautiously again.  There are potentials in treating addictions, anxiety/depression, PTSD, and a great many of maladies in between.  Unfortunately, many of these substances were misused/abused in unsafe ways/levels back around the ’60s, and so most of us have a cloudy understanding of all these things.

But most interesting to me were the accounts of the early scientists/philosophers/divinity students who experienced these substances simply as a way to experience an “altered state of consciousness”.  Complete skeptics who viewed everything through a scientific lens came away skeptical of their own need to understand only that which is understandable.  Religious people came away feeling as if they’d “finally” had an experience of the divine.  There were so many great connections to those of us who are willing to see it, and I cannot process everything or share all the great quotes here.  But one thing in particular screams to be noticed:

What is striking about this whole line of clinical research is the premise that it is not the pharmacological effect of the drug itself but the kind of mental experience it occasions – involving the temporary dissolution of one’s ego – that may be the key to changing one’s mind.” Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind

It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to see the connection here.  Pick a verse! Look at Ephesians 4:22-24 if you need one.  Scripture talks about “dying to self” in order to come alive with the New Life of Jesus Christ over and over again.  Followers of Jesus since ancient times have wrestled with and expanded on what all of this involves.

What happens in story after story throughout Pollan’s book (the “good” trips at least) are individuals who carve out time and space purposefully for an “otherly” experience.  They are talked to by a “guide” who comforts them, and reassures them of their presence.  They close their eyes, turn on some music, and are guided verbally while the substance takes its effect.  Once you shed some of the hallucinatory aspects, what often leads to transformation/healing in the individual is coming away from such an experience aware that an “other” way of existing is out there.  An immediate realization of a unity that flows through all of creation, and the beauty of color, sound, etc.

One of the things that commends travel, art, nature, work, and certain drugs to us is the way these experiences, at their best, block every mental path forward and back, immersing us in the flow of a present that is literally wonderful – wonder being the by-product of precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight…”  Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind

This is not too far off from experiences we’ve heard of happening in worship.  This is not too removed from experiences of “guided prayer” even I have helped lead others into/out from.   It reminded me of another book I’d read recently, “Merton’s Palace of Nowhere“.  Merton has written extensively on prayer, on dying to the “false self”, and on meditation.  He was even around during many of these early “trials” in the 60’s, so I wondered his perspective of these things.  In a letter from December 1965, he writes:

“..my impression is that they are probably not all they are cracked up to be.  Theologically I suspect that the trouble with psychedelics is that we want to have interior experiences entirely on our own terms.  This introduces an element of constraint and makes the freedom of pure grace impossible.  Hence, religiously, I would say their value was pretty low.  However, regarded merely psychologically, I am sure they have considerable interest.” Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love

I find myself agreeing with Merton.  The grace of God that arrives in our moments/lives of sacrifice and other-centered Love is not something we can carefully plan for/measure.  They should not be contained in a moment or require the assistance of substances.  Even the neuro-chemical responses of emotional worship experiences can be addictive in ways that make us desire more of those moments on terms we can manufacture.

Only when we are able to ‘let go’ of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste, and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life.” James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere

It’s not as simple as saying “Drugs are bad, mmkay?”  But it is as simple as saying an authentic and sustainable experience of God that transforms and brings New Life is possible for anyone, anywhere, at any time.  We live within a creation that proclaims the awe-inducing beauty and goodness of God,.  We are surrounded by a fellow humanity that was created to bear the image of the Divine.  God is not so far away as we often imagine.  The divine invitation to repent, to “metanoia” (have a changed mind) is something we do not seek to control, but submit ourselves to by pausing.  We offer ourselves in unceasing and moments of prayer, and a life with patterns of Sabbath.

To put it another way, we “come away/apart” or “retreat” to a solitary place as Jesus did, but also in moments joined together in relationship with others.  We prayerfully and vulnerably confess our false selves and seek to live in ways that shed/deny that self for the sake of others.  In living with these patterns, embracing people and moments with the precious validity of what could be (rather than what we assume will be), we position ourselves to receive the grace of a God-given Now.

On a closing note, I do believe these substances are able to “force individuals” into an awareness of the Divine (though not always).  However, we don’t need a substance in order to reveal to us different ways of perceiving this world exist.  What Jesus invites us to recognize is the power of compassion to accomplish even more.  Compassion means literally “to suffer with”.  When I choose to enter into the sufferings of another (person, people group, etc.), my vantage point enters into their own.  When this happens, we experience a “metanoia” that empowered by the Holy Spirit can lead to freedom from the chains we’d previously been bound by.  From a Christian perspective – when I “die to self” to come alive as Christ, I enter into a Holy Spirit-sourced compassionate life for those whom Jesus Loves (everyone…yes, even/especially them).  Such a life is the arrival of New Creation, where former things (false self) have passed away and all things have become New.  Not once, and not in a moment, but as a way of Life.

But beware.  As anyone who’s traveled to a foreign country can affirm, a daily existence where everything is “New” can be incredibly exhausting both cognitively and physically.  We may find ourselves depending on the power of God and needing to return to His presence…often…

…the Good News is, He is here.