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Monday, April 26, 2010

“Praying on the Right Side of the Brain”

The fifth page for Monday, April 26, 2010

Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuro-anatomist whose work has involved mapping the human brain. “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey” is an account of her experience during and after a massive stroke, when a blood vessel exploded in the left side of her brain. She describes not only her recovery, but the personal transformation that resulted from this experience.

This section of Bolte Taylor’s book, in which she is describing how she was feeling immediately after the stroke event, points to the possibility of another way of being:

“Although I experienced enormous grief for the death of my left hemisphere consciousness- and the woman I had been, I concurrently felt tremendous relief. That Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor had grown up with lots of anger and a lifetime of emotional baggage that must have required a lot of energy to sustain. She was passionate about her work and her advocacy. She was intensely committed to living a dynamic life. But despite her likable and perhaps even admirable characteristics, in my present form I had not inherited her fundamental hostility. I had forgotten about my brother and his illness. I had forgotten about my job and all the things in my life that brought me stress- and with this obliteration of memories, I felt both relief and joy. I had spent a lifetime of 37 years being enthusiastically committed to “do-do-doing” lots of stuff at a very fast pace. On this special day, I learned the meaning of simply “being”… I shifted from the doing consciousness of my left brain to the being-consciousness of my right brain. I morphed from feeling small and isolated to feeling enormous and expansive. I stopped thinking in language and shifted to taking new pictures of what was going on in the present moment. I was not capable of deliberating about past or future-related ideas because those cells were incapacitated. All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful.” (p.68)

Bolte Taylor’s view that the mystical capacity is “hard-wired’ into the neurological circuitry of the right brain is not shared by all brain scientists, but has nonetheless entered our culture, and had a major influence, largely due to the work of Betty Edwards, the author of “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. Early in that now classic text, Edwards quotes a neurosurgeon named Richard Berglund:

“You have two brains: a left and a right. Modern brain scientists now know that your left brain is your verbal and rational brain, it thinks serially and reduces its thoughts to numbers, letters, and words… Your right brain is your non-verbal and intuitive brain; it thinks in patterns, or pictures composed of ‘whole things’ and does not comprehend reductions, either numbers, letters, or words. “ (Edwards, p.xx)

Edwards was inspired to develop a new way of teaching drawing to her high school art students based on the insight that we have different “cognitive modes”.

A more recent book called “The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientists’s Case for the Existence of the Soul”, by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, describes Beauregard’s work to identify the areas of the brain which are active during mystical or spiritual experiences. Beauregard’s interest is to make the case for a non-materialist view of the human mind, to show that “your mind does exist, that it is not merely your brain. Your thoughts and feelings cannot be dismissed or explained away by firing synapses and physical phenomena alone. In a solely material world, ‘will power’ or ‘mind over matter’ are illusions, there is no such thing as purpose or meaning, there is no room for God. Yet many people have experiences of these things, and we present evidence that these experiences are real. “ (Beauregard and O’Leary, p.x)

Beauregard’s research group conducted neurological scans of fifteen Carmelite nuns “while they recalled and relived their most significant mystical experience”. They also scanned the nuns during a normal restful state, which provided a baseline for comparision. While Beauregard’s study results do not support the idea of there being a “God-spot” particularly on the right side of the brain, he does assert that brain activity is observably different during a mystical state.

In interviews at the end of the experiment the nuns were asked to describe their mystical experience. “the nuns said that they had felt the presence of God and his unconditional and infinite love as well as plenitude and peace.”

(There will be no fifth page next week, as Rev. Darrow will be away with his family on a spring break.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

on the right track

This week there is no regular sermon at Trinity. The “Trinity Players” are presenting “Something Fishy in Galilee”, a little play I wrote a few years ago based on a resurrection story from the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel.
I thought I would share with you part of a sermon I wrote this week to deliver at a funeral. The man who died had a fascinating life story, but it was also a story with some unfortunate turns. It seemed important to speak about God’s forgiving grace.

Tom’s latest project was in the basement. A whole room was being devoted to the layout of an N Gauge railway. This was an old passion of Tom’s that he was finally finding time to work on, and Louise and Tom were planning to complete it together.

I have friends who are quite involved in model railroading. It’s seems like there is a sense of peace and a degree of comfort in being able to build a little world, in which things work in predictable ways, and if they don’t, you can probably fix them. Life beyond the models does not often follow even our best laid plans.

Life is hard. That is true for most people I have met. Everyone has hardship, and sorrow, and everyone’s life has times when the train goes off the rails. Real life is not as easy to fix as a model train set.

At least with the trains you get catalogues and instruction manuals, that tell you what fits where, and where you can get spare parts when you need them. I was going to say that there really is no instruction manual for real life- but that is not entirely true. Depending on how we grow up, we read the living instructions that are written all over the lives of the people we know. We learn from examples, good and bad. We are shaped and influenced by other people. Also depending on how we grow, we may have some sense of faith- some ideas about God.

A few years ago there was a big fad for these little bracelets that people wore, that had the initials WWJD printed on them. The letters stood for “What would Jesus do?”, and the idea was that when faced with a decision, or a moral issue, or a time when we just did not see a clear track to follow, we should simply ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”, and then do it- or not do the wrong thing, depending on the situation.

There is some merit in asking ourselves the WWJD question, but frankly, I think the better question is, “How does God love?”. In my own life there have been times when I felt helpless to do the “right” thing, and I have hurt myself, and others. There have also been times when other people have hurt me. They may not have wanted to- but it happened anyway.

Dwelling on the right thing to do can lead us to spending a lot of time judging ourselves, and judging others. That’s why I think the better question is about love, and grace. Grace is the capacity God gives us, to forgive ourselves when we have messed up, and to forgive others, when their choices have hurt us.

Love and grace are what makes life in the real world possible. Because life is hard, and people do not always know what to do, and we have to find a way to carry on, even after the hurtful times. I believe Jesus came to teach people that God’s love and grace are limitless, and there is always the possibility of new life, beyond the pain and hard feelings.

I mentioned when I introduced the reading from Psalm 139 that God is always with us. God knows us from the inside. God knows our strengths, and weaknesses, and our noble plans, our best intentions. God also knows that life is hard.

God is with us when we were at our best, and in the other times. And God has loved us through it all. God has been with Tom since before he was born. God was with him for every breath, every step, every moment of his life. God cried with Tom as he lived through hardships, and celebrated with him in the joyous times. God was with Tom when he died, and in death, Tom has gone to be with God. Thanks be to God.

Monday, April 12, 2010

What we see

Jesus said to Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

There is more to life, and to our spiritual lives, than those things that can be seen.

At the end of February we had a day-long workshop at Trinity about the practice of Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer is a way of cultivating a relationship with God, taught and encouraged by an organization called “Contemplative Outreach”. In one of their pamphlets, Centering Prayer is described as a “method of prayer which prepares us to receive the gift of God’s presence, traditionally called contemplative prayer.”

So what is Contemplative Prayer? In the same pamphlet, contemplative prayer is described as “a process of interior transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to Divine union. One’s way of seeing reality changes in this process. A restructuring of consciousness takes place which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond with increasing sensitivity to the Divine presence in, through, and beyond everything that exists.”

In a book called “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening”, author Cynthia Bourgeault, who is an Episcopal priest, retreat leader, and spiritual teacher, writes about two “ways” of praying that have been recognized in Christian spirituality over the centuries.

Cataphatic prayer engages our “reason, memory, imagination, feelings, and will... the normal human operating systems that connect us to the outer world and to our own interior life.” Most of what happens in a church service appeals to one or more of our “faculties”, and give us content to focus upon.

Apophatic prayer does not appeal to our faculties of reason, memory, imagination, feelings or will. It tries to bypass our normal ways of relating to the world, to create space for our under-used, and often ignored other faculties, what Bourgeault calls our “spiritual senses”, or “spiritual awareness”.

Bourgeault quotes a Trappist monk named Father Tom Francis, who is also a teacher of Centering Prayer:

“....the person goes to their center, their spirit, their true and deep Self, their personhood, where they are made in the image of God, spirit to Spirit, in a wordless union, communion, the lover with the Beloved... the state of being in direct contact with the God who dwells within...”

I spent this past Saturday with a group of Centering Prayer teachers and group facilitators. These folks were not monks or hermits or wild-eyed mystics. They are ordinary people who have answered a longing in their own hearts, to spend time each day in silent prayer, opening themselves to the possibility of the presence of God.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Can we find meaning in Jesus' death?


I am not an academic theologian. At seminary I absorbed enough theology to be able to navigate without getting too lost. In the years since, I have tended to follow my curiousity into specific areas, and avoided others. I would compare it to my knowledge of the City of Toronto- I know the broad layout, and how to get around, but could easily make wrong turns in neighbourhoods I have not explored.

The theological neighbourhood of “the meaning of Jesus’ death by crucifixion” is not one I have spent a lot of time in. I know some of the major intersections- the “cross” streets, if you will, but not the intricacies of all the back alleys and cul de sacs, the developments and re-developments that have emerged over the centuries.

I have usually steered clear of this neighbourhood. It has a horrible reputation, because of the predominance, at least in Western Christianity of what is called the ”substitutionary atonement theory”. This bully on the block makes me want to stay away. This theory, which scholar Mark Heim says, “came in fact to seem almost identical with the image of the cross itself”, is laden with guilt and shame about being human, and abject fear of God.

Heim summarizes the theory this way: “God’s redemptive plan revolves around offering an innocent Jesus for punishment and death in place of a guilty humanity, allowing a just God to practice mercy by saving sinners whose debt had been paid by God’s suffering on their behalf.” (Saved from Sacrifice: a Theology of the Cross, Mark S. Heim, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,2006.)

More recently I have been challenged by the fact that some of my spiritual heroes consistently look to the cross in their writings, and have found tremendous help and meaning there. I am cautiously looking into this neighbourhood again, not ready to move in, but willing to check it out.

It has been helpful to be reminded that the substitutionary atonement theory is not the only route that Christians have taken, and that many Christians have never gone that way.

In his book, “The Heart of Christianity”, Marcus Borg says that while the ingredients for the atonement theory are present in the New Testament, they were not brought together in the theory’s present form until about 900 years ago. Borg also notes that Jesus did not see his own purpose as dying for the sins of the world. (The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, Marcus Borg, HarperCollins, 2003.)

Borg sees at least 4 other interpretations of Jesus’ death on the cross present in the New Testament, and makes the important point that all of these are “retrospective”- written by members of the Jesus movement who are looking back at the cruel suffering and death of Jesus, and trying to find meaning and purpose.

1) The Resurrection is God’s “Yes” to Jesus, in response to the “No” of the worldly authorities who had him killed.

2) The death of Jesus on the cross exposes the moral bankruptcy of the world’s powers, and the power of evil. Jesus triumphs over evil by not resisting it.

3) In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we see the “Way” of spiritual transformation, of dying to an old way of life, and being raised to the new, that is the heart of Christianity. (I am most drawn to this view, and would go further, to say that this is the “Way” of all the major spiritual traditions, not just ours.)

4) Jesus’ death on the cross is a revelation of God’s love for us. This reading depends upon the theology of the “incarnation”, the belief that God assumed human form in Jesus, and lived and died as we do.

Mark Heim makes the point that most Christian teachers and preachers draw on elements of one or more of these theories when constructing their own theology of the cross. We can probably see signs of these different theologies in the hymns and prayers we encounter in worship.