Tag Archives: transformation

Change is possible: And worship can loosen stuck memories

Whether you are a psychotherapist, a worship leader or a loving parent, the new brain science has good news for you. Those seemingly indelible memories that haunt us from our youth to old age are not as permanent as we thought. We can cooperate with God, who provides us transforming, mismatching experiences, and hope to bring healing and new life.

At the recent CAPS Conference, I kept hearing about a book that has people talking: Unlocking the Emotional Brain by Bruce Ecker, Laurel Hulley, and Robin Ticic.  They assert that intense emotions generate unconscious predictive models for all of us. These models tell us about how the world functions and about what caused those intense emotions. We don’t question them, just react to them as the brain uses those models to guide our present and future behavior. When we experience discordant emotions and feel stuck in irrational behaviors they are likely generated by these implicit “schemas” (models for how the world works) which we formed in response to various external challenges. These mental structures are ongoing, working descriptions both of the problems that move us and the solutions we have accepted.

According to the authors, the key for updating worn-out and often-troubling schemas involves a process of memory “reconsolidation,” which can be verified by neuroscience. They claim our more conscious emotions are usually locked out of the area of the brain where more basic memories reside, like the ones that form our predictive models for the world. But once an emotional schema is activated, it is possible to simultaneously bring into awareness knowledge contradicting the active schema. When this happens, the information contained in the schema can be overwritten by the new knowledge.

What this means is that people who are trying to help troubled loved ones can help create different, healing experiences and hope people can change. If we have mismatching experiences that contradict what we have previously experienced, new models can be formed. This science validates what most Jesus followers know. We can experience transformation that goes against the fatalistic sense of indelible identity and inevitable destiny that colors so much of the popular imagination of humanity these days. For instance, the trailer for Assassin’s Creed. [Warning: violence]

If you don’t want to just go with your ancestral memory for assassination, you can hope your pastor (or therapist, or friend) can be present enough and perhaps creative enough to provide or affirm an alternative experience. We’re not alone, flawed, stuck or doomed!

We need mismatching experiences for deep change

It is tempting for Christians to “humbly” allow their words or their programs to serve as a stand in for their personal and relational cooperation with God’s Spirit. But people need more than logic that only hits their upper brain. They need real, live experience of goodness and love they can see, then feel and then integrate. In brain-science laden psychotherapy talk: You can’t throw words at the limbic system. I often shorten that to “don’t should on me!”

What we need in order to reconsolidate those intractable memories are “mismatching experiences” that allow our schemas to be contradicted in a good way and reformed in line with new experiences. This is one reason God did not send a book to us, she came personally in Jesus to provide many such experiences that don’t match the experiences which subverted our memories, and that is why Jesus left the body of Christ to create an environment for an alternative process – because transformation takes place deeply in such an environment.

Jesus & the Samaritan Woman (sermon) — Saint John's

You can see Jesus creating mismatched experiences repeatedly, notably with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). When he begins to make a relational environment with her, he starts in a dependent position to make a connection and quickly manages to touch the shame that is basic to how she sees herself in the world. She stays with him and enters into a surprising intimacy across racial and gender lines – she calls him a Jew, then a prophet and eventually “sir.” Her mismatching experience reaches a peak when Jesus notes what she has done but stays with her, unlike all her husbands and all the people who have left her alone fetching water at noon.

John later teaches from this experience: “If God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!” (1 John 4). We experience transformation at the level we need it. Our good thinking alone rarely seeps into the places we need to experience the love of God and so rarely makes us people who begin reacting according to a new model of love.

Our worship can be a transforming environment

I am mainly writing to encourage pastors and the rest of us Jesus followers who want to cooperate with the transformation of humanity. One thing cooperation means is that worship should be a mismatching experience, not a lesson, and should mainly be focused on the present, not function in reference to the past or future. Our times of worship are hardly the only places we create an environment for transformation, but they are certainly a good opportunity!

Temple (anatomy) (PSF).svg
All too often true of our worship experience

Unfortunately, our worship is often not a mismatching experience. It is often not hitting our emotions at all, but is stuck in the upper reaches of the brain. So it has little hope of getting to the deep seated schemas that reside close to the spinal cord. Ironically, we had a decent example of brain-bound worship in the CAPS Conference itself. A very talented man from Charlotte (I believe) led us in a song we also sometimes sing in our worship times called Build My Life led by Pat Barrett with the Housefires, originally from a church network  centered in Atlanta. [Here’s a link if you are not familiar.]

 I do not mean to insult the integrity of anyone who wrote or uses this popular song. They probably mean well and appear to be good-hearted Jesus followers on screen. I would just like to tweak their lyrics to provide for a present time, real experience of God-with-us, rather than a mental process in line with our self-protective schemas.

Worthy of every song we could ever sing
Worthy of all the praise we could ever bring
Worthy of every breath we could ever breathe
We live for You

The lines above seem more like a statement of identity formation than worship.

“I am naming your traits.
I live for you.
That’s me.”

That process of self-identification is what the song is mainly about. It is a bit akin to the Assassin’s Creed — an ancient-seeming fictional set of rules bent on creating a freedom that never quite arrives.

The lines of the song could be a statement of having been transformed if we were not then led to sing:

Open up my eyes in wonder
And show me who You are
And fill me with Your heart
And lead me in Your love to those around me

This seems like the song of a “buffered self” (see description in this post) singing from the inside of their painful impermeability. This is not a real time experience, yet: “Open me up. I need to see you.” It might be better to sing

“I open my eyes in wonder
and see who you are.
I am filled with your heart
and see the fields white for harvest.”

Those tweaked lines would be more suitable for entering a mismatched experience in which we are not far away or alienated from God, but are one with Jesus. Being honest about our needs and feelings is good, but singing about ourselves in worship might be more matching worship with our schemas than being transformed. So many of us are in a perpetual state of aspiration, more interested in making a choice, once our eyes are opened to the options, rather than accepting our invitation to enter into spiritual reality. If we were the woman at the well talking to Jesus, we might keep arguing instead of relating to who is with us. The song goes on to repeat, like a mantra:

And I will build my life upon Your love
It is a firm foundation

So many Evangelical songs are in this future tense, for some reason. Making a promise is a good thing. And the promise above is a great place to stand. But making it in worship may not provide the mismatching experience in the present that unlocks the memories that form the schemas of the person who is singing the song. It is something that will happen in the future, apparently. I found myself singing,

“I am building my life on your love;
I feel its firm foundation.”

The passage from 1 John and what Jesus demonstrates with the woman at the well teach that love present in the moment unravels and reconsolidates. The woman at the well went back to town and told everyone how she met a man who revealed all her shame and it did not kill her, or she him. I think that means she had experienced worship in Spirit and in truth! So much of what we do is sanctioned by the upper brain, but true worship impacts all our emotions and those rigid memory systems that run us.

I take heart that the Spirit of Jesus will do a lot more with the Housefires’ song than I would think just by looking at the words. That may be the case in your experience. But I also think the opposite could be true, that our shallow thinking and schema-bound reactions might quench the Spirit and consign people to a painful struggle with the uneasy feelings they get about how false worship can be.

Intensity: How to be in a movement, not a moment

So how was the meeting of the church yesterday? Was it about as exciting as the Eagles’ rout of the Bears? Did you skip it because you thought it might not be worth driving to? Are you out of the habit?

Maybe prayer has even slipped out of your schedule and you replaced it with caustic remarks about people who “drank the Kool-aid” and keep acting excited about things you “got over” a lot time ago. Maybe you chalk up your boredom to your “meeting fatigue” or “lack of bandwidth.”

I don’t mean to shame you if any of this is true about you. I just want to be honest. Christianity is intense – all the time. It is a life and death matter – all the time. Most of us have a moment of that intensity here and there, or we would desert Jesus altogether. But we need a movement, not a moment. And if we expect to reveal Jesus to the world and work with the Spirit as God transforms it, we certainly can’t do it with a few moments of intensity.

Earnest expectation

In Philippians 1:20 Paul says, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” Many translations  says he has “earnest expectation” and hope.  He is intense. The Greek word has the idea of a head that is outstretched, as if waiting in suspense.

We can all relate to this sense of expectation. My grandchildren were afraid and delighted to be racing go-carts the other day. You may have a job interview lined up. The baby might be due. For Paul, he is writing while awaiting trial before a Roman court. It could be that the delusional Nero will give him a death sentence. What was Paul’s expectation? That Christ’s glory would be seen in his body whether he lived or died. That was his EARNEST expectation.

Paul’s intense desire was that Jesus, in whom he lived and who lived in him, would have free rein of him so he would prove to be the best vehicle of transformation he could be. If dying proved to be a better strategy, then so be it. Really! He wrote that to the church in Philippi, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” That’s intense.

Paul did not come equipped with his courage or will. We humans have those capacities, but they are mostly moments, not movements. His courage came from the Spirit of Christ who made him alive, even if he died. He was not talking about achieving an ongoing integration of Christ “into his life.” This was not post-therapy, post-intellectualizing Paul telling us how he ended up enlightened. Jesus is his light and he is confident Jesus will shine through what he is and does whether he lives or dies.  That is basic Christianity. It feels intense to us.

If the Sunday meeting does not provide us a moment, we might feel like we have no movement. If a person feels like they are too intense, we might want to put the brakes on their movement, since it feels like we are getting run over. I supposed we are getting run over — meanwhile, Paul appears to like getting run over. Being a vehicle for God’s glory is his definition of wonder-ful.

How do we get into the movement and stop living off the “crumbs” of the spiritual moments that don’t add up to enough?

1) We need to pray

Pray for yourself. Pray for others. Pray for the Congo. Intercession is crucial if anything is going to happen. If things seem flat, maybe we are not praying! But even before you get to interceding, practice the turn into the movement of God’s Spirit.  Work on the meditation that gets you out of thinking your courage and capacity makes it all happen.

2) We need to relate rightly

If you are talking about people instead of to them; if you’ve decided you can’t talk to them so you are just avoiding everyone, you are starving for connection and it is wrecking you. The moments of love you get may hurt, since they just point out how much more you need. Those moments might make you mad, since they seem to be depriving you or demanding of you. You need to be in the movement.

I wish our leaders told us every week that the Sunday meeting is not just about the speech or the songs; it is about the relating, the being together in the Spirit, the relationships built and the plans being made. What happens before and after the scheduled events should be just as important as what happens during them.

3) We need to do something. Trump is president.

The fact that the populace (or at least the system) elected a liar who would rather have a strong-man government like Russia’s demonstrates that the world needs saved. What are you going to do about it? Get depressed? Be resentful? Withdraw? Join in and make as much money as possible while the doors are open to exploitation? Get as mean and divided as the powers are promoting? Conform to an even more debased way of thinking? I wish I did not have to even list those things, but people are doing all those things.

Many people are doing just the opposite, of course, but temptation is everywhere. Black Friday background checks for gun purchases soared last week while we were calling for “buy nothing” day. While we are calling each other to Turn Up to Bail Out, the Ku Klux Klan claimed a surge in new members. Some of us are overwhelmed. We would never have done anything to get into prison like Paul did and if we did get there we might have gone crazy instead of converting the Praetorian Guard.

The main thing Paul does is demonstrate the glory of God in his body whether he lives or dies. He does not have a plan to save democracy or depose Nero. He is part of a movement of God’s Spirit that is way more than the present moment. He trusts in it. He is confident in it.  He is not waiting for a moment or disappointed because he missed it. He lives in an eternal now with Jesus.

The main thing Paul expects the followers of Jesus to do is demonstrate the presence of the risen Lord as the body of Christ. How we do that is discerned moment by moment, but we are always in the movement. If the powers that be try to kill us, that will make Jesus even more obvious.

I, for one, would not be a Jesus follower if Christianity were not intense. That’s why it is hard, sometimes, when I think the meetings feel a little dead, or I run into loved ones who are more resistant than resplendent with glory. But then, like today, I often remember Paul’s letter to the Philippians and note the contours of my cell — and maybe even pen my own letter, of sorts. Jesus is with me.

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Conversion Stories

In my circles, the word “conversion” sort of has a bad reputation. I think that is because strange, power-hungry men (for the most part) have been in the mass media for decades prowling for conversions. People feel like it would be a sign of low self-esteem to give in to them – sort of like owning the Pocket Fisherman because you saw it on TV.

That’s too bad. Because conversion is a good word. It basically means an event that resulted in transformation. Maybe we don’t like getting coerced into conversion, but people yearn for transformation, and that is the essence of what relating to Jesus is all about. So maybe I don’t need to be “converted” in the worst sense of the word, but no matter how many people try to get me to accept myself just as I am, I long for the transformation God promises. The more of it I experience, the more I long for the fullness.

I got to thinking about conversion when I was sitting at breakfast yesterday with the members of Shalom House and their Guidance Team celebrating the entry of Kristen into the household. We told peacemaking stories. Many of them included the conversion it took to be committed to Christ’s way of peace. I needed to be converted to that even after I was a Christian! My father was in the Navy. My brother was in Vietnam. I enthusiastically voted for warmongers. My conversion was mainly due to an honest reading of scripture. When Paul talks about the armor of God he says to have “your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” (Eph 6:15). I don’t know why I would need to be a Christian at all if I have to undo Christianity so I can fit war into Christ’s peacemaking.

So I was encouraged by the Shalom House people.

As I was remembering them this morning, a flood of realization came to me. Last night at our PMs, I was surrounded by people who were experiencing conversion. Some of it was rather dramatic.

A person quit his high-paying and high-powered international job last week because he feels convicted to have a life in Christ.

A person risked her job to get off in time to get her family to the PM, now that they have just one car.

A person is making a covenant with the church, even though it goes against his grain to be so noticed and connected.

A person has been released from her former ambitions and is bravely looking into the brand-new future that is opening up before her.

Even as I am listing these conversations that all happened during the course of one evening, I realize that there are many more I could be listing — some small examples, some large. There is a lot of conversion going on. Knowing Jesus and being one of his people is changing people and allowing them to go with further change. I don’t know if transformation is breaking out, but I am glad to at least have my eyes opened to it a bit more. Are you noticing any conversion in your quadrants?

Answering those Who Teeter…again

Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”  Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.  Matthew 19:27-30

The philosophers and scientists of our time have applied a lot of brainpower to finding out as much as they can about the natural proclivities of the rest of us. We are analyzed and tracked exhaustively so that what we want to consume will be delivered on demand. The Egyptian slaves of old built pyramids, we buy things. All this year the nation has breathlessly watched the statistics to see whether the big American consumption behemoth will start to eat ravenously again and so propel the stockholder’s profits and create those elusive jobs. The wise men of the age nervously watch to see if their predictions about what we want are right.

You can tell that I resent their science, can’t you? I resent big, powerful, faceless entities relentlessly using data collected on me to create products that are the images of my inmost desires. Essentially, they keep trying to get me to buy myself! – or at least some grainy image me or faint whiff of my desire. As much as they work on it, they’ll get more adept. Really, doesn’t it seem like the powers don’t even sell products anymore, they just sell just the hope of having the experience of being ourselves? We have fallen into a weird self-consumption; every day we get tempted to take a bite out of “ourselves.” We seem to be trying to get a self by eating ourselves. If you don’t notice you aren’t full yet – the advertisers do.

The recent Jeep commercial we were subjected to before Young Victoria (or was it Nine?) is a good example. I live. I ride. I am. Jeep. I wonder why the powers can afford to spend a bazillion dollars on that nonsense. It must be because it speaks to what a lot of us believe, and so brings a return. I think it feeds us our own delusions and sin and then gives us a Jeep to assuage the insatiable hunger for something  — we buy things that can’t satisfy, but we’re used to accepting the sensation of momentary fullness as something. It is like eating a diet of candy canes. We seem to generally like that.

As you can see in the scripture, Jesus feeds us what we don’t know we want. He does not base his actions on data he collects from us. He has an entirely different idea of consumerism. Jesus feeds us what we aren’t. It means transformation. When Jesus says, “Give up all your nonsense and come make sense with me, in every sense of the phrase,” it might initially seem like a bad deal. A Jeep seems like it might be worth it, in comparison. But, the Jeep only looks like it is all about wind in our perfect hair. One can’t buy freedom like that. Even if more elementary school teachers brainwash more children into thinking freedom can be paid for with our lives, it still will not be true. Jesus is better than the Jeep. He says, “Make a total allegiance to me and you will not miss anything you desire. Love turns to LOVE.  Family to FAMILY.

I am not sure we believe that allegiance to Jesus will transform our stuck-in-the-mud desires into fully human desires. A lot of us spend a whole life teetering, twittering and vacillating between Jeep and Jesus. I’m not denigrating the process of decision as I hope you will see, nor am I even saying that the way to Jesus can’t be through Jeep. But I am lamenting whatever pain teetering may bring to us. (If you’re not experiencing teetering, this may just irritate you, beware).

I think teetering makes forming community hard. I felt like writing this note to you because I watched some brilliant people trying to do some brilliant community formation the other day and they ran right into some people who just couldn’t get out of their Jeeps to do it. To be a part of the mission, their recruits had to leave what they were already doing to join in with a new brilliant thing that was being formed. They just could not do it. They could not heed the call the whole way; they wanted to adapt the call to match what they were feeling. They wanted to compromise and “sort of” be a part. When they heard someone suspect that the community was too radical, they backed away. They pondered and pondered until the window of opportunity passed and they had slid into some other pursuit.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The recruits might have just as well been considering becoming a Christian, or making a covenant with the others of Circle of Hope, or just coming to a meeting in a regular fashion. (Or, to be honest, it would be the same thing on the antichirst side — they could have been called to not be a Christian, not commit to some “system,” or never be “in or out” of the boundaries of some meeting). Or maybe it sounds familiar because someone went through a similar experience when someone who loved them would not marry them. Or maybe you’ve read Matthew 19 before and felt with Jesus as he struggled.

No doubt you felt with yourself as you struggled, just like the first followers of Jesus. Transformation is hard. I don;t think we should underestimate how hard the change from unreconciled to reconciled with God is – especially since sin has retrained our hearts!. Reconciliation with others – even sticking with people we love, much less dealing with those we hate, is hard. Making a covenant, racial reconciliation, peacemaking! – we aren’t always feeling it. We feel like getting a Jeep, or at least like having wind in our hair — and if we follow the training of the people who apply the science around here, that is about all we will feel. It is amazing how often we trade Jesus in for a desire that is undeveloped. But it is not so amazing that we can’t have sympathy for those who asked Jesus, “What then will there be for us?” People are  always wondering that. And Jesus doesn’t mind answering the question….and answering it again.