Your Brain on Faithfulness

60% of Americans report that they have had an experience of the presence of God or a patterning of events in their lives that persuades them that they are a part of a cosmic design. (Fingerprints of God, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, 150) A man named Michael Persinger gained notoriety for his research that produced what he called the “God helmet.” He was researching what happens in the brain when people have a spiritual experience.  What he found was that the left hemisphere of the brain is in charge of language and gives us a sense of self.  The right hemisphere of the brain is more involved with feelings and sensations.  So, if you stimulate the left hemisphere of the brain you become aware of your “self” of you as an individual.  But if you stimulate the right hemisphere of the brain, you sense a presence other than yourself which he claimed is the prototype of the God experience.

80% of the people who put on the God helmet which stimulates the right side of the brain experienced feeling a sensed presence, as well as dizziness, vibrations, spinning and visions. Through his experiments, Persinger isolated the right temporal lobe of the brain as the sweet spot for spiritual experiences. What Michael Persinger’s work suggests is that anyone with a temporal lobe has a gateway to the divine and that when we have divine experiences that our brain is altered by the experience.

We are in a new sermon series titled, “Your brain on fruit” We are taking this series from Galatians 5:22 where Paul says that the result of following Christ is that we will bear fruit.  He lists the fruit of the spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Today, we are talking about your brain on faithfulness. Faithfulness can be defined as being sincerely religious, devout, full of faith, trustworthy & dependable.  While faithfulness can mean all of these things, I think there is a new word that people in our communities can better understand. 

Faithfulness feels like what we mean when we say, “Let’s take a moment to center ourselves.”  Being centered and being faithful say that we embody the qualities that would enable us to find our way back to core truths when life throws us off balance.

With what is happening in our world today, our people, the people in our communities that we may or may not know yet, are crying out to find ways to shift their internal state of being away from mirroring the fear, anger, and anxiety that is present all around us. They want to find a treasure that is worth centering their lives around so that when life catches them off balance, they have a way to align their whole self with this treasure. If people are hungry for spiritual practices that change their internal state of being and if our bodies are this amazing instrument that God gave us to tune to God’s frequency which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness etc. then we as the church must talk about how the mind & body are involved in our spiritual practices. 

According to Brian Spoon our resident expert on how the fruit of the spirit profoundly affects our mind and body, faithfulness means that we experience a feeling of our whole self being aligned with God. He writes that when we are not in alignment then our mind and body feel distressed, but that when we are aligned then we are able to think more clearly because the part of our brain that that is involved in moral and ethical decision making agrees with the part of the brain that is involved with reasoning, planning, & executive function.

 As a minister, sometimes it is hard to get up in front of a group of people and say, “Jesus said we must live this way!” when we know that we are not fully aligned with God’s love for the world.  There is this sense of angst about needing to be mind, heart and body aligned with God before we tell others that this is how we should be as Christians. What I try to remember is that sermons are for me too.  Sometimes, I think I learn more from my own sermons than maybe you learn from them…and that is OK!  The beautiful thing is that sometimes I have an experience during the week that challenges what I am about to say in a sermon so that I either have a story to tell you that I can say, “Please don’t do what I did,” or “Here is how I navigated faithfulness this week.”

 This week I had one of these experiences. On Tuesday, we went to bed and as soon as I laid my head down on my pillow, I felt like a part of me was yelling at me.  Having studied Internal Family Systems Therapy, I understand how to step back and navigate all the parts that make up who I am.  This part of me was angry for anything and everything going back years.  Now, another part of me recognized that the yelling part of me was blowing things out of proportion and behaving irrationally.  But, as I have been asking you to do, I turned towards this part of me to listen because there was something that I needed to hear so that the yelling would grow quieter. 

What I learned is that there is a part of me that felt vulnerable leading through this discernment process.  As a new leader in our church, I discovered something about how we use our property that put us in the position of having to make life altering decisions.  The scary part is that this situation has a similar tone and feel to a past church experience. So, the angry part of me was mad at me for getting us into this situation. But here is the part I want you to hear.  I was able to calm the angry part of me down by acknowledging the fears of the angry part of me. I also was able to thank that part of me for being faithful to watch out for my well-being. Then, I was able to speak truth that aligned my body, mind and spirit with God’s love because I know that I am called to be with you during this great time of transition.  I have no doubt that God worked through your committee to bring me here.  I also recognize that God gave me the gifts and skills to lead and learn together.  The part of me that was yelling threw me off balance for a long night but grew quiet as I returned to center.  This is one picture of what it means to be faithful.

As a church worldwide, we know that Matthew 28:19-20 is what we center our vision and mission around. This is the great commission given by Jesus Christ for all people who would follow the path of Jesus.  It reads, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

The beauty of Jesus’ words is that they are a guiding light for each church to prayerfully decide their unique vision and mission statement. As Disciples of Christ, the unique vision of our denomination or what we imagine a world to look like because of us is to be a faithful growing church that demonstrates true community, deep Christian spirituality, and a passion for justice.  We center our vision statement in Micah 6:8. Our mission or how we are going to live into our vision of being a faithfully growing church is that we will be and share the Good News of Jesus Christ, witnessing, loving and serving to the ends of the earth.  We center our mission statement in Acts 1:8

Why is it important to define our unique vision and mission?  Simple.  It keeps us centered on what is important to us so that we don’t run around doing 100 things with minimal impact.  It keeps us faithful to what we feel called to do together so that when we get knocked off balance by pressures and change, we know the direction God has called us to go.

Anytime we can get together and pray for God’s vision for our church is an unbelievably hopeful experience.  Research shows that churches go through mission stagnation every decade or two, so we need opportunities to reconnect with our people and look at our changing community and say,

“Ok, God, how are we uniquely positioned to follow the great commission? How is Heights Christian church going to be a faithfully growing church in our denomination?  How will HCC love and serve to the ends of the earth?”  But it is always a risk to ask these questions because what if you actually feel called to do something!

Six women in our denomination got together in the late 1800s to pray about how the church could care for the “least of these.” These 6 women are described as “courageous innovators,” ahead of their time. Their lives exemplified “visionary leadership and sacrificial risk-taking” in the face of countless obstacles and “formidable odds.” “Why did they take on such a mission? The answer is they felt called to a task larger than themselves.”

This is the story of the National Benevolent Association which is a part of our denomination.  The story goes that this group of women looked around the streets of St. Louis and noticed how many children were living on the streets and through prayer, they discerned that they would care for the least of these by giving a home to the homeless, providing care for the sick, and comforting the distressed.”  Later, the NBA went through a time of great transition. Federal aid provided for children to remain at home, birth rates were in decline and the demand for adoption increased.  The buildings that the NBA had purchased for housing were no longer full.  Instead of closing the NBA, a new vision for ministry was birthed that remained faithful to God’s call to provide care for the least of these.  The community problems had changed so they reassessed the needs and realized that while housing was no longer necessary, treatment centers were needed to house the high demand for mental health professionals and retirement communities were in high demand to extend care to the elderly, so the NBA transitioned to meeting these needs. For 130 years, the National Benevolent Association has made it their mission to care, and that mission centered the association during times of great transition. As needs in our community’s change, that does not mean we are no longer necessary. What it means is that we have to pray and faithfully meet the needs of this new day.

According to Partners for Sacred Spaces, an organization created to help churches creatively explore how to navigate times of great transition, the majority of resources available to struggling congregations suggest that if your congregation has lost its sense of purpose and/or has slipped into spending more on the building than on outreach, you may have reason to close. As shocking as this is, their point is that the mission of the church must be what guides all of the decision making of the church and if a church doesn’t know its purpose for remaining in their building, then it is time for a great transition. A highly significant African American United Methodist Church in Philadelphia found itself in a time of great transition. The church was situated in a neighborhood that in the past decade went through profound demographic change.  For over 80 years, this church’s signature program was a soup kitchen, but with the change in the neighborhood, the church’s mission did not fit the needs of the more affluent neighbors.  The church recognized that their mission did not match the needs of the neighborhood so they made strategic changes in 2 ways: 1- they upgraded their kitchen to become a commercial kitchen that could be rented out to food entrepreneurs when the soup kitchen was not in operation.  2-they upgraded their facility to host not for profits who could no longer afford commercial real estate prices in their area.

This is just one of the ways that churches are being creative about how to remain faithful to their mission when in a time of great transition.

Faithfulness helps us navigate our way home in times of distress and faithfulness invites us to imagine a new way forward.

The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows writes to us during the 8th month of the pandemic, “I often preach that the task of the spiritual life is to take a long, loving look at the real. Meaning that we are called to face life’s challenges with care, sensitivity, honesty, and as much wisdom as we can gather, trusting that on the other side of the challenge is new life.”

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