Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How God Changes Your Brain

The bumper sticker in front of me read, Prayer Changes Things. I must confess, I don't like bumper sticker faith. I bristle at the notion that faith and mysteries of life might be reduced to a vinyl glossy sound bite slapped on a car. Faith is bigger than that.

Though the bumper sticker may be true that prayer changes things, it is also true that Prayer Changes Us.

In addition to 12 Essential Reason to Yawn, posted here previously, I found notes written in my journal while reading a book in the serenity of a sunlit library at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine during my stay with Cindy.  How God Changes Your Brain, a compilation of the team of Newburg and Waldman's research from a variety of traditions, offers the following excerpts among other conclusions:

  "Intense, long-term contemplation of God and other spiritual values appears to permanently change the structure of those parts of the brain that control our moods, give rise to our conscious notions of self, and shape our sensory perceptions of the world."

And further, "Contemplative practices strengthen a specific neurological circuit that generates peacefulness, social awareness, and compassion for others."

The authors present this thought in a chapter on ways to exercise our brains:

"If you stay in a contemplative state of 20 minutes to an hour, your experiences will tend to feel more real, affecting your nervous system in ways that enhance physical and emotional health. Anti-stress hormones and neuro-chemicals are released throughout the body as well as pleasure-enhancing and depression-decreasing neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Even 10 - 15 minutes of meditation has been shown to have significantly positive effects on cognition, relaxation and psychological health." (p. 159).
What helps us relax and let go enough to contemplate and pray? Sometimes we need the help of visual and mental prompts. Pictures of a quiet place? Images of peace and calm? Whatever we find helpful, let it take us there. Often.

Some folks consider meditation doing nothing...just sitting there... a complete emptying of one's self. I can see how such an understanding leads us to feel that we are wasting our time when we could be doing something constructive. It's the American way: get busy. Be Productive. Perhaps this reminder will help alleviate the guilt of doing nothing while praying and giving time to devotional reading and contemplation by informing that we are, in fact, doing something!

Practices that build emotional, spiritual, and even physical health and well-being are to be celebrated in our lives. Do not feel guilty in choosing to give time to addressing this important need. Know that we are doing something vitally good for ourselves. And when this component is missing in patterns in our lives, we might not be surprised that we do not operate at optimal levels.

Go in peace and in the power to change our lives--power that God has already given.

Make time for serenity.

 More summer reading?  My favorite book on the broader subject of the brain has been Change Your Brain, Change Your Life,  by Daniel G. Amen, M.D., a gift from my uncle in about 1998. This book on the working brain can help to optimize patterns in the brain to help us be more effective in day-to-day life. I deeply appreciate the source of the gift: our uncle whose own life has been devoted to enhancing the lives of his patients through many decades. Especially in treating of ADD/ADHD school children and stroke and traumatic brain injury patients, Dr. Harold L. Russell has dedicated his life to unlocking for lay people the power of the brain's plasticity and malleability to help us adapt to changing situations. He is most recently a contributing author to Music, Science, and the Rhythmic Brain: Cultural and Clinical Implications (Berger and Turow).

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Singing in the Dark....for Ross


 Dawn birds...The very name comes to my ears in a distinct South African accent with its gentleness and beauty. This writing was inspired years ago by the life and pastoral ministry of Rev. Dr. Ross Olivier while he and his wife, Shayne, and two sons lived in Jackson, Mississippi. In fact, Ross inspired much of what I write and who I am becoming. His service here continues to send ripples throughout our lives. Ross came to us from across the miles during a particularly formative time in my life. Fully in adulthood, I was hearing and beginning to answer a call to obedience in expressing matters of faith in writing.

 I repost here as an ebenezer  in memory of Ross who died this week, still beloved pastor and unapologetic prophet. May God grant peace to his family and beloved wife, Shayne.

Dawn Birds: Singing in the Dark

I have learned of some who are facing a painful time, a loving vigil with family members right now. Each of us will be there at some time in our lives, if not now. A cherished image I have held for years may be meaningful to share with others who are in this place.

Our friend, Rev. Dr. Ross Olivier, spoke about the dawn birds of his native South Africa. He told of this tiny bird whose song is the first sound to be heard while it is dark, before the sun lightens the sky. They sing while it is still night because that is what they were made to do!

There is darkness all around us in many ways surrounding death or deep personal loss, yet there is at the same time the song of One who says, "darkness and weeping will not always endure - day is coming." The sun will always break through the night; light will overcome the darkness. Such is the order of nature, and it is the promise of scripture.

I make no claim to know how anyone else feels. I cannot speak from having been in your shoes about the unfathomable despair and fatigue and the inexpressible sense of lost expectations you have in your own situation. Each of us has to walk that path ourselves. But I do speak words of love and assurance that there is a dawn. I join the voices of others through the ages who call out praise to God in spite of circumstances, because - like the dawn birds - that is what believers are made to do. There is something inside that knows this is not the end of Life. Yes - it looks like the end of everything we know, but death is not the final word.

I believe we are not merely physical beings on a spiritual quest; we are also spiritual beings living in a physical world. This world is filled with disease, heartbreak and brokenness all its own. But that is not the extent of our experience of Life. Our minds must expand to grasp the vastness of a reality much larger than what we see and touch - a reality that includes time and space much larger that our small world will allow. Sometimes we call that heaven or eternity. But the promise of scripture is that we were made for something much more than the limited experiences our loved ones now enjoy with their disease progression and disability. Even as the body is deteriorating, we often glimpse a powerful spirit - the individuality of one who fights to live.

It is still the dark night of the soul for you and so many others. Suffering is dark and painfully bleak. I cannot answer the question of why we have such suffering in this world. And to even address it here risks violating a sacred personal space at such an intimate time. What gives hope to one person sounds arrogantly dismissive of the depth of intense suffering another bears.

I have long held a favorite scripture dear to me:
"Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning." Psalm 30:5
Not merely weeping, but gut-wrenching sobbing endures for many nights! So when does the night end and morning come? Who is to say when it is dawn? Is it when the first light breaks over the horizon, or when sun fills the sky? I don't know. But I believe with all my heart it will come, and it will bring each of us into the presence of God who has been with our loved ones and with you and me all along. We will one day know the power of God's Presence in a way we only see darkly now. But we can experience some measure of God's Peace now.

He will never leave us alone. Never. Among Jesus' parting words were these:
"And I will ask the Father and He will give you another counselor who will be with you forever." John 14:16

"Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day." NIV 2 Corinthians 4:16

"That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day." New Living Translation 2 Corinthians 4:16
Thanks be to God for a little creature who sings in the dark. May I carry a song in my heart as fuel for the journey of life.

Cruelty and selfishness in one painful act...

Recently I wrote about Rich Dixon who hand-cranked his bike from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, riding from Minnesota south on a lifetime journey to chronicle his story and to raise money for charity. Rich is the cousin of my friend, Rachel Kabukala, and a gifted, impassioned speaker. He dreams big dreams, and I was impressed in his wake as he pulled out of town.

He is also paralyzed after an injury left Rich unable to walk. But Rich's companions, his precious wife and trusted dog, Monty, are helping make his steps through life more than amazing.

Now, in a testament to the innate selfishness bound up in the hearts of humans, I see an update to his story.   Please pray for Rich. And maybe for the person who thought it funny to steal his bike and leave him an utterly worthless piece of junk in its place. I am saddened to hear the news found here this morning.

Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.  Hebrews 4:16

UPDATE: May 4, 2012 The Fort Collins, Colorado Police delivered the located bike to Rich - with great rejoicing from friends and concerned onlookers. The investigating on ongoing, so there is no comment yet, but I am so pleased to give a happy ending to this story in time for his planned journey this month.