Your Brain on Gentleness

Olive Schreiner’s story of a dream tells the story of how a single person’s purpose fits into the narrative of a larger vision. 

            A woman walking out of a desert approaches the steep, high bank of a river where an old man meets her. She is seeking the land of freedom. He tells her it is before her but she sees nothing but a fast-flowing river and a steep and slippery bank. He encourages her to look beyond her initial vision and when she shades her eyes she can see—on the other shore—the land of freedom. She wonders how she will get to this land of trees, hills and sunshine: there is no bridge, the water is deep, the banks are steep and slippery, and no one has managed to cross the river before. She determines to go. But in a moment of hesitation, she blurts out: “For what do I go to this far land which no one has ever reached? Oh, I am alone! I am utterly alone!”

            And the old man says to her, “Silence! What do you hear?” She listens intently and says, “I hear the sound of feet, a thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, and they beat this way!” He says, “They are the feet of those that shall follow you. Lead on! Make track to the water’s edge! Where you stand now, the ground will be beaten flat by ten thousand times ten thousand feet.” The old man explains how locusts cross a stream. First one descends to the water’s edge and is swept away. But as others quickly follow, their bodies pile up to build a bridge over which the rest can pass. And she says, “Over that bridge which shall be built with our bodies who will pass?” He says, “The entire human race.” At that, the woman grasps her staff and turns down that steep and slippery bank to the river. (Another Way, Lewis, Williams & Baker, 48)

When I think of gentleness, I think of what I tell my children to be when they are holding their new baby cousin, Lily.  I hear myself over and over saying, “Be gentle, honey.”  What I mean by that is to touch her in a way that is soft and slow; hold her securely but without too much tension; to be aware of the difference between their larger stronger body her small body. This is indeed what it means to be gentle in that situation, but the story about the woman and the old man that I told a moment ago gives us two new aspects of gentleness. We heard the woman in the story have this moment where she shifted from a protective stance to open hearted courage through applying t two of the three habits of gentleness which are listening and courage of heart.

The moment in the story when the old man invites the woman to listen, the story changes.  Before she listened, she was feeling alone and scared and disconnected. And what does she hear?  she hears the sound of thousands of feet coming her way. He says to her, “They are the feet of those that shall follow you. Lead on! The woman listened and recognized that she was not alone but that she was called to go before everyone to make a way for the whole human race to cross the river safely.  She found the courage of heart once she felt her mission had purpose. This moment in the story is a dramatic portrayal of what happens when we shift from a protective heart to embody gentleness.

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 walk through life with a gentleness of spirit that would inspire them to listen, forgive, & be courageous of heart. 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 gentleness then we as the church must talk about how the mind & body are involved in our spiritual practices.  It helps us better understand how we are a new creation in Christ.

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.  The fruit he is talking about is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Today, we are talking about your brain on gentleness.

Brian Spoon writes that when we practice the 3 habits of gentleness that we become capable of working through conflicts together and I would say that this is important right now for our church.  The three habits of gentleness are listening, forgiving, and having the courage of heart. So, what does gentleness do for our brains that would allow us to work through conflict together?  The hippocampus is a part of your brain that is near the Amygdala which is gives us the quick fight or flight response. But the hippocampus helps us store and create memories and when we are in a safer space we feel comfortable sharing our memories. Then we have the reward center of our brain that is activated when we feel accepted by a group.  When we feel safe and accepted, we are better able to access the parts of our brain that are creative, committed to working for the good of others, and flexible to adapt to changes. 

Today, we read about a character in our sacred text who practiced all three of these habits of gentleness.  But first let’s get a little background information

In 922 BCE, the kingdom of David had been split into two parts: the north was called Israel and the south was called Judah.  Two hundred years later, in 721 BCE the Assyrian army conquered the Northern Kingdom and exiled its leaders.  Now the southern Kingdom was having it’s own problems that the prophets spoke directly against, but they also experienced a revival of sorts. They began to reject other religious practices in favor of centralizing worship in Jerusalem.  But in 586 BCe, the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem exiling the leaders to the northeast leaving only a remnant in Judah.  The people could not believe that God would allow the destruction of the temple and the loss of their homeland.  But the prophet Ezekiel came along and said you guys seem as lifeless as a pile of dry bones, but God will make you come alive!  Just 3 years later, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and the Jews were allowed to return home. It is during this period of the Persian rule that the story of Esther is situated. 

Esther begins with celebration and feasting.  The story goes that while the King of Persia is merry with wine, he asks Queen Vashti to come before he and his friends wearing a crown.  Now, an extra source says that that is all he asked her to wear!  So, the queen is commanded to parade naked but with a crown on in front of the king and his friends and she refuses.  This enrages the king and he declares that she is never to come into his presence again!  I’ll show her.  She might have rejoiced at her punishment!! Then when the king sobered up he remember Vashti, but his servants told him to round up a bunch of pretty girls and pick the one he likes best and that she can be his new queen. At this time in the story, Esther is living with her cousin Mordecai because her parents had died. Esther is one of the beautiful girls who comes before the king and our text reads that “the King loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.”  What Esther did not tell the king was that she is Jewish.  Now, this becomes an important detail a little while later.

 Now, there was a man named Haman who was promoted by the King and all of the people had to bow to him, but Mordecai Esther’s cousin would not bow to Haman. This made Haman very angry. Haman found out that Mordecai was a jew and plotted a revenge against him.  So, Haman went to the king saying there is this group of people that does not obey the King so the king should have them all killed.  The King said to Haman, “Do with them as you will.” When Mordecai found out what was happening, he reported the news to Esther. It is at this point in the story that Esther moves from a passive figure doing what she is told to do by the men in her life, to being an active character determining the destiny of the story. 

Mordecai says to Esther, “For if you keep silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise from the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Then Esther said to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day, I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the King, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

After 3 days, Esther goes to the King, he pardons her for coming into his presence without being called and she saves her people. 

Esther saves her people by practicing the 3 habits of gentleness.

First, she Listens

Esther’s character is silent until chapter 4.  She is moved around without her consent. But she was listening.  She was listening to all that was going on around her. She was listening to what works with her new husband the King so that she could strategically plan something that would work to win his heart.  She listened to Mordecai’s counsel that now was the time to act! Her listening gave her the wisdom and courage to pray and strategically plan how to win the King’s heart so that he would grant her request. Her listening gave her the wisdom and courage she needed to approach the King even though she could have been killed for approaching him without being summoned.  

2-Forgiveness

Esther is a character in a story that she did not choose.  She did not have a choice as to where she lived. Her parent’s died and so she went to live with her cousin Mordecai. She did not have a choice whether to be in the position that she found herself in.  So, I think we can safely imagine that she needed to practice the second habit of gentleness which is forgiveness. Maybe She needed to forgive her cousin Mordecai for putting her in this situation even though he really had no choice either.  Maybe she needed to forgive her parents for their early death that brought her to live with Mordecai.  Maybe she needed to forgive herself for not telling anyone that she was Jewish before they found themselves in a situation where her people might be persecuted.  Forgiveness is an element of healing that many of us do not want to address because it is uncomfortable. 

Scriptures says in Matthew 5:24 that if you are in an act of worship and you remember that you are at odds with your brother, to leave the altar and go and be reconciled with your brother.  I think the same holds true for when we have not forgiven ourselves. So, today, we will engage in a ritual of forgiveness.

Please hold your candle. This votive represents the best possible you. But you are not able to fully express your light because of the burden of that which you have not forgiven within and that which you have not forgiven in others. What is unforgiven, as well as your resentments, keep you from expressing your best self. Notice you are not alone, all those around you are living dimmed lives also.”

Please hold your piece of twine. This piece of twin represents the cords of the entanglements and attachments to the people, places, and situations that you have not forgiven. Imagine this cord wrapped around everyone in this room including yourself. We are not living in the freedom that Christ came to bring when we do not practice forgiveness.

Take a moment to think of those you have not forgiven and of resentments towards others that you are hanging onto.

I forgive you, I release you, I let go.’ “

Take a moment to think of how you might be bound up in a lack of forgiveness for yourself.

I forgive myself, I release myself, I let go of this burden.

Released from your burdens and entanglements, now please hold the candle, the vessel of your true self; contemplating where you can bring your light into the world and be an instrument of peace. When you feel ready to share your restored light, please light your candle. 

Forgiveness Ritual | The Ritual Space | Spirituality & Practice (spiritualityandpractice.com)

To me, Listening and forgiveness are wrapped into the third habit which is having courage of heart. Maybe you can jump to being courageous, but I tend to think that the practices of listening and forgiveness come first.

Brian Spoon writes, “Courage comes from a root word that means heart. To have heart and to be wounded are two of the most fundamental aspects of being gentle.” (Neuroscience and the Fruit of the Spirit, 148)

This is exactly what Esther experienced. Although she did not play an active role at the beginning of her story, she was listening. Although no one had a choice in what brought her to the palace and into the arms of the king, she needed to forgive. Listening and forgiveness gave her the necessary courage to approach the King even though she could have been killed and then all her people after her.  After much prayer, she had the courage to take the risk even though death was a possibility.

Tomorrow, we have a conversation with Connection Christian Church.  In their story I hear the type of gentleness that practices listening, forgiveness, and courage. They wrote on their website, “Sometimes God calls you to do something bold. And sometimes, you summon the courage to say yes. That’s our story. After 111 years of dedication to sharing the love of God in Jesus Christ with the people of Odessa, God called us to do a new thing. We were led to sell our historic building and set out on a new adventure. We bought and remodeled a new building, changed our name from “First” to “Connection” to reflect our heart for Odessa, and committed to reach out with the radically inclusive gospel more broadly than ever before.

Connection Christian knows that part of their journey is that they have gone before those of us who are now like the woman in our first story at the water’s edge.  They have no intention to direct the churches like ours to follow the exact path they took in fact Rev. Dawn Weaks said that one church they met with decided to stay on their property. Another eventually closed. The invitation to us is the same invitation they give on their website. They invite us to have the courage of heart to live more freely, to love more boldly, and to reach more widely by saying “yes” to God wherever that path may lead!

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