Friday, November 21, 2014

Jesus Christ, Brain Scientist

Two thousand years ago, Jesus said an awful lot about helping others, being kind and generous, being more concerned about others than yourself, and to be wary of wealth because it can get in the way of our relationship with God. (Normally I'd link to some Bible verses here, but seriously, just pick any page in the four gospels and you'll probably find him talking about one of these things.)

And for two thousand years, we in the church have sought to follow these commands in various ways and for various reasons. Some follow Jesus' words to earn God's favor (or avoid wrath! [neither of which I endorse]), some do so as a public witness of faith, some do so because they think Jesus' words are just a wise way to live, and so on. We sometimes disagree on how best to love our neighbor or feed the poor, but most Christians take Jesus' words seriously and try in our own ways to live them out.

What's occurred to me recently is that modern science is starting to back up a lot of his words about how to live as good for happiness, good for health, and good for society.

  • Michael Norton has research that shows we can buy spending money on others. 
  • Shawn Achor says that spending time doing kind things for others, giving thanks, and meditating (prayer?) are keys to wiring our brains for happiness. 
  • Brene Brown has shown that embracing our imperfections (confessing sin, maybe?) and living with vulnerability is core to joy, love, and stronger relationships. 
  • In the documentary "Happy," several researchers say their studies show humans are happier in forgetting themselves and helping others than they are trying to make themselves happy. 
  • And there are growing studies that suggest that large amounts of wealth are linked to people being less empathetic, less ethical, and less generous (scroll just past halfway to find the studies cited), but not any happier.

I think almost any person would list having a purpose and personal happiness as core goals for their life. Ironically, this research is suggesting that the best way to find them is to stop thinking about yourself and focus on serving, loving, and giving and happiness and purpose will naturally follow. Sounds a little bit like, "Those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Luke 9:24).

Maybe when Jesus shared all these words with us years ago, he wasn't just letting us know what God thinks of things or setting up religious standards for Christianity. Perhaps he was also giving us insight into how we are created to live, in essence saying, "You should be loving, forgiving, and generous because your brain and body is hardwired to react positively to those things."

I am not an expert in all of this science and I know this is a large leap to make, but if we are made in the image of God and God is loving, generous, and compassionate, it makes sense to me that those traits would be indelibly marked within us.

I'm excited to see what else this growing field of science might reveal to us, because for all those who've ever told me that Jesus' words about love and compassion don't work "in the real world," the real world of our brains is starting to look more like the Kingdom of God.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“'Cause we are miracles wrapped up in chemicals.” -Gary Go, "Wonderful"

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What's Coming to You...

(Note: This post was originally written for my church's newsletter.)

It happened this past week in mid-November. Both my kids at different times asked the age-old question, “When is Christmas going to be here?” They are already anticipating the presents, decorations, and food that heralds the heralds of Christ’s birth. And who can blame them? In spite of the stress that some of us feel before Christmas, it’s still a joy and wonder to wait for what we all know is coming. 

I was reminded this morning by a devotional reading that the very name the Church gives for the weeks before Christmas — Advent — means “coming.” It is a time that we live with patience and preparation (and excitement!) for what will soon arrive. One of the things that I love about Advent is how it represents the way we are meant to live as Christians all the time. We are always looking with hope and excitement towards the future, always keeping an eye on what’s coming. 

I find this an important reminder for myself as we head into another Christmas, a new year, and another (early) winter. There are always reasons to be pessimistic about…almost everything, and this year is no different, with ISIS and Ebola causing havoc and heartbreak, Russia seemingly focused on another Cold War, domestic politics that are as partisan and bitter as most of us can ever remember, and so on. (Like, why is it this cold in November?) 

But as Christians, we are called to live in the now and the not yet. While we seek to love and serve in the present, to ease suffering and care for those in need, we also speak of the not yet, the coming Kingdom of God (or, as I like to call it, “God’s Reality”) where joy and love will prosper and suffering and trouble will end. Christmas happens just after the shortest day of the year and for generations, the Church has used the circumstance as a metaphor that once Jesus appears, light in the world increases.

In October and November of this year, I’ve preached on a lot of texts from Matthew where Jesus describes his eventual return. Many of these have images that can seem threatening and scary (Matthew is very fond of the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth”), but for Christians, these words carry a great promise: God doesn’t want the world to be suffering and unjust and some day Jesus is coming to fix it all. All the things that cause us fear and heartbreak — near or far, big or small — are temporary compared to the promises of God. Therefore, we look for the coming of Jesus just like we wait for the coming of Christmas: with joy and excitement. When is Christmas going to be here?

In God's Amazing Grace,
Pastor Ari

“Blah blah love and war.” -The Rescues, “Did It Really Even Matter”

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Why Laziness is Not My Problem

I've been reading through a daily devotional online called "10 Things to Abandon for Spiritual Growth." This morning's devotion was focused on laziness. "Work gives us purpose," the author wrote. While I agree with that and that laziness is not a trait to be admired, I found myself thinking that for me and many people I connect with through my congregation, the problem is not that we don't work enough, it's that we work hard at the wrong things.

I hear all the time that people are too busy or tired (often from my own mouth). Our culture celebrates and encourages hard work and often work more than we have to by not taking all our vacation days. Even our free time can feel like work as we fill it up with clubs, committees, and kids' activities.

No, I don't think laziness is a problem for as many people as my devotional's author seems to think, but I do agree that God intends for us to do work that has a purpose, and that's where I think we (or at least I) have room to grow.

Just being busy isn't the same as doing something meaningful. I find it easy to fill my time with things that keep me busy, but can then get to the end of a day thinking, "What did I actually do today?" Sometimes I legitimately waste that time, but just as often I make myself busy with activities that don't do as much for my health, my attitude, or my relationships as an alternative would. I choose poorly or fail to make a decision in the first place and end up dealing with whatever comes up.

In Matthew 6, Jesus talks about making ourselves busy with worry, but then says, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and God's righteousness." I think Jesus was partly saying, "Prioritize your life according to God's purpose for you so that you don't make yourself busy or crazy out of worry or fear."

We are made by God to have purpose in our lives, but sometimes we need to say no or not now to some things so we can be busy with things that serve that bigger purpose. I've been doing some of this myself recently because I found myself repeatedly thinking, "I'm too busy to do the things that really matter to me." As I've made a few things I care about more important, I've found myself no less busy, but feeling more satisfied and less stressed and tired.

No, I don't think laziness in general is a problem, but maybe being less lazy about setting good priorities is a good goal "for spiritual growth" (as the title of my devotion says). Then I can work harder at work that's worth doing.

“It's as crazy as it's ever been; all we have is now.” -Live, "Run to the Water"