February 5, 2017; 5 Epiphany, Year A
The people complain to God: “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” In those days in Israel, the people fasted in times of anxiety and fear, when they faced a threatening crisis too big to manage. When Israel’s first king, Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in the army’s terrible defeat at Gilboa, the people fasted for seven days. When King David’s child fell deathly ill, he fasted, hoping God would spare the child. When the Jews in the Persian Empire faced extermination, they fasted and placed their hopes on Queen Esther’s appeal to the king. Fasting was the Jewish response to threat and fearful distress.
Isaiah speaks to this anxious people, and he tells them, Your fasting is ineffective because you are worrying about the wrong things. Shift your attention. Instead of being fearful and anxious about your own security and your selfish self-interest — oppressing your workers and inventing hostilities — focus on compassion and love; nurture the needs of the vulnerable. Quoting now: “Loose the bonds of injustice, …let the oppressed go free… Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house: when you see the naked, cover them, and do not hide yourself from your [needy] kin. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn… Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer.”
Cell biologists tell us that the cells of our body have an either-or mechanism. When they are in a healthy, nurturing condition, they move toward growth. When they receive negative, threatening signals, they move toward protection. Cells can only move in one direction. Toward growth or toward protection. They can’t do both simultaneously.
I think the same is true for the larger human systems. Whenever we are moving toward growth, we are open, less defensive, less protective. Whenever we are moving in a protectionist defensive posture, we can’t grow.
When we experience threat or fear, our bodies react chemically. The hypothalamus reacts to perceived threat and sends a warning message to the pituitary. Tell the adrenal glands to flood the system, and every cell gets the message: “Fight or Flight or Freeze.” The energy and attention of the entire body then goes out to the extremities. Muscles tense and prepare the bones for action. The viscera, the internal organs in the chest cavity and abdomen almost shut down. Digestion slows or stops, activity in the immune system recedes. Those are the systems for growth, not for protection.
Blood in the brain moves from the frontal cortex, the rational executive brain, to the more primitive reflexive area of the brain. Under stress we get stupider and reactive. Do you ever remember taking an exam when you were very nervous, and you just couldn’t think?
Whenever we live with constant threat or repeated fears, adrenal levels rise in our bodies. Then we begin to experience chronic anxiety, and our immune systems become compromised. One study estimates that 60 to 90 percent of doctors’ office visits have something to do with stress-related issues.
A society that gets a steady diet of fear and threat will become chronically anxious and reactive. It will get stupider and more defensive. It will compromise its immune system and become vulnerable to internal viruses of self-centered dysfunction. That’s what Isaiah saw happening to his people.
But Isaiah and Jesus offer good news to an anxious people. The answer is love, especially love of neighbor—compassion and generosity.
Let’s go back to the human body. The pituitary is the master gland that controls our direction, sending us signals either for growth or for protection. The pituitary sends a message: You are safe. Grow. The lungs fill, the heart finds rhythm, the digestive system nurtures. We relax and grow stronger and more healthy.
In human beings the most powerful growth-signal is love. You may remember those studies of orphaned infants in Eastern Europe who were not picked up and loved. They didn’t grow. They got plenty of food, but they didn’t grow. Love is even more important than nutrition.
Medicine has discovered something that religion has known for centuries. We call it prayer and contemplation. Medicine calls it the “relaxation response.” Doctors teach patients to focus gently on their breath with a mantra to recall attention. We teach Centering Prayer.
Happiness researchers have discovered something that religion has known for centuries. When you love your neighbor as yourself, in a spirit of trust, nurturing hope and generosity — you thrive.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson had developed a unified theory of a happy brain. He works with affective disorders, depression and anxiety. Davidson maps four independent brain circuits that influence our sense of lasting well-being. One neurological circuit manages our ability to maintain positive states. It is fed by compassion and love. A second, completely different brain circuit manages our ability to recover from negative states. It nurtures our resilience. A third brain circuit manages our ability to focus, our capacity to pay attention and to avoid mind-wandering. Meditation exercises our capacity to pay attention.
Before I get to the fourth brain circuit of a happy brain, let me revisit something I ended with in last week’s sermon. It touches on those first three brain circuits. A passage from St. Paul invites us to pay attention to eight things that will help us both to maintain a positive state and to recover from negative states. Paul advises, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) Pay attention to these eight things, and you are more likely to influence the brain circuits that strengthen the positive states and release the negative states.
But I told you about those other three independent brain circuits for a happy brain, the neurological systems that influence our sense of lasting well-being – I told you about those three to tell you about the fourth. There is an entire brain circuit devoted to our innate ability to be generous. When we are generous, this neurological system lights up and it contributes to our happiness and sense of well being. The human brain is hardwired for cooperation, compassion and generosity.
Our innate evolutionary drivers are to survive, to reproduce, and to cooperate. That’s how the human species survived. Yes, we are hardwired to fight or flight, but we are also hardwired to cooperate and to be generous.
I would contend that in a civilized world where we are unlikely to be eaten by an animal, we only rarely need the fight-flight mechanism. And when we feel that we are being attacked by other humans, we will probably defend ourselves better by keeping our resources more focused in our rational and thoughtful capacities than in our kill-or-be-killed capacities. We have the capacity to listen and to understand the other, to empathize and to be peacemakers. Jesus taught us to love our enemies. I believe using the fully human part of our brain and emotional systems is a better strategy for confronting nearly every perceived threat than using our mostly animal part of our brain and emotional system.
An emotional diet of fear, conflict and anxiety is an unhealthy diet and will make us sick. An emotional diet of love, compassion and generosity is a healthy diet and will let us grow.
Isaiah’s advice still holds. Are you anxious or feeling threatened? Is your coping strategy not working? Stop thinking in a protectionist, defensive direction. Let love, compassion and generosity move you in a generative and growing direction. Let go of your negative thoughts and maintain a hopeful capacity. Focus on your opportunities to be generous. Loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked.
Listen to Paul and concentrate. He tells us to focus our attention on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent or praiseworthy. “Think about these things,” Paul says.
If we will change our focus, Isaiah and Paul give us two promises:
When you call, God will say, “Here I am.”
“And the God of peace will be with you.”Download the Sermon PDF