One July when I was middle school age and my sister was around the age of 9, we decided to bake a cake for my parents anniversary. We did not think ahead of time and plan this out well. Nope. We decided to start baking the cake at 10pm that evening. My parents had gone to bed and we snuck downstairs to start making this secret cake. Well, the cake turned out fine, but the kitchen looked quite a mess with flour and ingredients everywhere. But by this time it was almost midnight. So, instead of waiting for the cake to cool to add the icing, we decided that we just needed to get the whole thing finished. We started making the icing but could not get it right. It was super runny. Then too thick. Then too runny. We were undeterred so we decided to add the now too runny icing onto the warm cake and then quickly put it all in the freezer. At some point in the shenanigans of the evening, my mom crept downstairs to see what all the giggling was about. We told her to go back to bed because we were planning a secret surprise for their anniversary. I’m sure that she took one look at the kitchen and thought, “Oh, I wish you hadn’t!!”
Doing things in secret for other people can be really fun. There is something exhillerating about it. But we also know that our shadow sides come out in secret. Disorders like anorexia and bulimia thrive in secret. Some Addictions are taken up in secret and very powerful to break when we are alone and left to our own devices. I think Jesus knew this and that is what our scripture for today is talking about. How we think, speak and act in secret has a profound affect either positively or negatively on who we are.
The People outside our walls are telling us that they want transformation and we know that it is in our practices that are sometimes done alone and sometimes done communally that truly have the power to transform our daily lives. I have said this before but research suggests that people no longer show up at church because they want to know what to believe or how to behave or even our strongest one which was to belong. Now, they want to be and become. One quote I posted on FB this week offered another insight into being and becoming. It stated that maybe it is about ‘Un becoming” everything that is not really who God created us to be. Becoming or unbecoming both signal some kind of transformation that doesn’t just happen magically. The joy of being a part of a religious tradition is that we have ways to help us experience a change of heart, mind, and body. One of the ways that we talk about that In our tradition is that we are called to experience being so connected to the source of life, The Divine that we bear fruit.
The fruit that we are talking about comes from Galations 5:22 where paul writes, “22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
But what we have forgotten is that We need to know what it feels like in our bodies to experience the fruit. We need to be able to describe what having a sense of joy or peace feels like in an embodied way so that we can recommend to our friends that what they are looking for….we have found. This is an essential piece to the Good News Jesus came to preach.
As we are continuing to experience the effects of the pandemic, we probably can better describe how fear shut off our brain…what anger feels like…what it does to our chest to feel overwhelmed… of intolerance; of sheer frustration. These we know intimately…but this is not what Jesus had in mind when he said that he came so that we might live life to the fullest. This week we are beginning a new series to reintroduce the fruit of the spirit so that we can begin to shift away from these negative emotions and find a deeper connection to the Source of life… Our outside world may not change, but what we can change is our inside world.
Matthew 7:16 You will know them by their fruits.
Through neuroscience, we are coming to understand that the fruit of the spirit produces profound neuroscientific and physiological change in our bodies. (13)
1- neuroplasticity: No matter how old you are, your brain still has the ability to make new connections and rewire to do something different. So there is no excuse my friends!!! You can change until you are no longer with us in this world!
2- Hebb’s Law: Neurons that fire together wire together. When we practice something, that practice strengthens the neural circuitry. We can literally become more like Christ through practicing things that build allow love, joy, peace, to grow in our lives. But it takes continued and sustained practice.
Just because we believe in Jesus does not make us more loving people. Just because we intellectually know that we are called to love, does not make us become more loving. We now have the understanding that we actually need to train our brain…to feel it in our bodies so that we can intimately know the truth that sets us free. And this is what contemplative practices have offered for centuries but that we are just now having the ability to understand how it works. These practices may seem small or individual or not of value because no one is looking or praising us for it….these are the things that affect change.
When the Christian Church Disciples of Christ began taking form on American soil, it met and was shaped by a culture that need to feel freedom from religious tradition. Our founders sought to restore and unify the church. The restoration can be thought about in terms of what the church should not be doing which has to do with the church structure, creeds, not believing that people can read the bible and keeping people from the communion table. And restoration has to do with the things that our founders felt we should be doing which is getting back to being New Testament Christians and grounding all that we do in scripture. The other hope was that all Christians could unify into one Christian Church which they felt would usher the return of Jesus. The people here in America had hard lives making a way in this land and so they wanted a church that could show how Jesus offers simple and practical help for coping with a hard life.
I think that we have come back to this very spot here in America where our people are crying out for our religious communities to offer something that will help them cope with the hard lives that we lead. They want to experience peace and love. This is exciting for us because it is a place that the Christian Church Disciple’s of Christ thrived in the past. What we must offer is something intellectually stimulating but that is grounded in the realities of life so that our faith has practical and profound affects in daily living.
This week, my daily practices were disrupted by covid. I found myself fearful and full of anxiety…fear and anxiety seemed to be more powerful than the actual symptoms of covid for our family. But what I learned is that despite the disruptions and the fear/anxiety, I could lean on years of daily practice. I could remember to pause, find my breath, and let that feeling of peace and love that I have come to know so well flood my body. Then, I was able to trust the counsel of my doctors and my body to heal.
Something that is new for me that started to happen 18 months ago is kindness toward myself. One of the benefits of a sustained contemplative practice is that there comes a moment where your internal dialogue shifts from being critical, judgmental, and demanding to hearing a voice inside that is encouraging, uplifting, and gentle. I remember sitting in meditation all those many months ago and when I finished my practice, I congratulated myself on committing to a daily self-care regimine. This voice was very new to me and I wrote in my journal that a smile came to my face. I have always been a cheerleader for other people whether I was teaching an aerobics class in the 90s or helping a friend keep her commitment to the next step in her wellness journey or when Peyton learned his first word in sign language at the age of 3. It’s just in me to cheer people on, but I had never experienced being a cheerleader for myself. This week, I cheered my body on for mounting a response to the virus and slowly making its way towards health and healing.
Kristen Neff who is an associate professor in human development at the University of Texas and is a pioneer in the work of self-compassion writes that our culture emphasizes being kind to your friends, co workers and neighbors but not to ourselves. She defines self kindness as the ability to recognize when we are being harsh with ourselves, pause and shift to actively comforting ourselves. In a study done on how the brain reacts to self criticism or compassion groups where asked to imagine a situation of failure like applying for jobs and getting a third rejection letter in the mail. One group was asked to react in a critical way and the other group was asked to react with kindness. What they found is that the group that reacted critically activated a part of the brain that detects errors and engages in problem solving. The other group who reacted with kindness activated the part of the brain associated with positive emotions and compassion. In conclusion, Neff writes, “instead of seeing ourselves as a problem to be fixed, self kindness allows us to see ourselves as valuable human beings who are worthy of care.” (49)
So, my challenge to you this week is to spend a few minutes everyday to get to know your interior world…your inner voice. Maybe some of you already know that voice and don’t want to hear it anymore often than you do….proceed gently with this practice, but know that your inner critic really wants the best for you even if the way in which it speaks is no longer useful for you today!
You can use Kristen Neff’s activity to guide your time this week:
1-take 5-10 min each day and just observe your inner dialogue.
2-any time you notice a self-critical voice, make an active effort to soften that voice by thanking it for always keeping you safe and helping you to improve. It may feel silly at first but this is practice!
3-reframe the observation made by your inner critic in a kind, friendly and positive way. You may need to journal this one!!! For me, I used to beat myself up if I did not perform to my standard of perfect. I would also speak very harshly to myself saying things like You blew it Amber no one will ever give you another opportunity. Now, I assess the situation, thank my inner critic for wanting me to improve and then reframe it by saying, “I offered my best today. My best is not perfect and I will have another opportunity to try again.”
Jesus was right in that it is the things done in secret that impact our lives the most..that either make life a living hell or allow us to experience a little bit of heaven on this earth.