Plastic Fantastic

I’ve been thinking about how to follow through on a subject I promised to write about months ago: Fear. I had got as far as wondering if the fear of God is the only legitimate fear a Christian should have. But then I got blown off course, can’t remember how exactly. It seemed so negative when I came back to it. I think God agreed, because this verse popped into mind.

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.  2 Timothy 1 v7

The context of this little gem is a letter of encouragement Paul wrote to Timothy, a young leader of the early church in Ephesus. It certainly encouraged me to take my eyes off the problem and see what tools I had to deal with it instead. Power, love and self-discipline. But what to do with them?

About two weeks ago I learned a great word. Neuroplasticity. Not an obvious one for me. My scientific illiteracy comes from a long history of neglect, helped by using school science lessons for the discipline of daydreaming. But I met it in an article with other words short enough to keep my attention and long enough to seem credible.

Neuroplasticity is, as far as I understand it (see above excuse), the ability of the brain to rewire itself. For example, around an injury site in the brain, the various electrochemical processes that would have taken place there simply find new pathways around the affected area. I was talking about this to a friend at church, as you do, when she pointed me in the direction of Caroline Leaf, a Christian neuropathologist who relates the physical brain and the way it works to the Bible.

I have a neighbour who is a neuroscientist and not religious at all. I asked her about it, with some nervousness, 1) because I’m still shallow enough not to want to look a fool in front of a proper scientist/new friend/neighbour and 2) because I want it to be true, for God’s amazing design to be visible under a microscope, so to speak. So I handed her the book and asked her about neuroplasticity. She confirmed it was definitely true, even gave me examples.

Why am I so excited about this? Well, for a couple of reasons. The season I’m in, to coin some christianese, is a bit dry and dusty. The amazing truths that used to get me all fired up don’t seem to be hitting home. When I look back on earlier times in my life I seemed more, um, good, more connected, consistent, more certain about how to live my faith out. I was readily quoting scripture, encouraging others, praying at the drop of a hat, all that. I’m still praying – mostly short, sharp, ‘don’t let me say/do something ugly now’ kinds of prayers. I’m still quoting scripture, more to myself than anyone else, to help me mean those prayers, and yes I’m having to encourage myself quite a lot when it seems like nothing is changing.

Many of us who call ourselves the church are not living spectacular Christian lives feeding orphans or setting up schools or converting our neighbours or anything remotely like it. We may even be quietly avoiding difficult conversations, buying too much stuff, gossiping with our friends and sniggering quietly at the back of church like bored teenagers.

The point is, neuroplasticity tells me I am not only able to change, but designed for change. In both directions. The choice is mine. Each time I decide, with my mind, to go against my negativity, I am creating physiological, tangible change in my own brain. Even better, the Bible tells me that God didn’t make me feek and weable but able to choose and bring about changes. This verse bears repeating.

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.  2 Timothy 1 v7

Breathe out, people. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Fresh Wound

It’s over. Again. Another life in our family has ended. A slow puncture this time instead of an explosion. Everyone in our house, apart from the 4 year old, is moving slower, as if grief is a kind of invisible heavy gas we have to wade through. Holding your breath for months wears you out, wears you down. We’re all tired.

Yet I can say I see mercy in the midst of this. At the bedside a few weeks ago we were able to say thanks, we love you, goodbye. Whatever needed to be said and heard. We were there to help and support at just the right time. For reasons best known to God, we were spared the loss of communication and consciousness in the final days. It’s not easy being away from the rest of the family. Distance does not dull the pain or the sadness. But I have seen enough to trust that there is a reason for our being here now, for our being there then.

One of my children asked me if it was okay to shout at God. I said, No. He’s still God. But you can tell him how you feel. Perhaps I should have said yes, but I was a child raised to never shout at her own parents, let alone God. A different era, I know. At least shouting is communication. I am learning this from another child. And God is, thankfully, more patient than I and unlikely to shout back.

I have never before spent time with anyone so knowingly close to death, and her quiet dignity in the face of it and all the discomfort of her condition, was powerful. All my petty preoccupations dissolved in her company. This beautiful woman, my husband’s mother, had not been a great church-goer in recent years, but in those final days her calm anticipation of meeting God comforted me more I suspect than any clumsy words I found to say.

We will meet again. Of this I am sure.

John 14 v 1 – 3

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and  take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

Years

28. Not the years of my life. I have a few more than that under my belt. I mean 28 years since I became a Christian. Yes I was young then, but truth be told I came to it out of desperation, not a desire to please my parents.

About ten years ago I met up with an old school friend who had become a Christian before I did, on a church camp I had invited her to. We hadn’t seen each other since leaving school and our lives had taken us to different countries to live and work. She asked me if I was still a Christian, and commented that she’d more or less messed up too badly to carry on with it. Or words to that effect. In my usual slow-off-the-mark way I didn’t answer, but felt desolate for her. I didn’t know how to say to her, as the night got progressively more rowdy, that she couldn’t fall beyond God’s reach. I hope for another chance one day.

Years and years of trying to formulate a brand of Christianity which would involve the least involvement and make commitment easier for the uncommitted should have disqualified me from the family of God years ago. And yet he  still hangs in there with me, reminding me in thousands of ways that he is faithful, even if I seem to bend with every new opinion I hear until I find my way back to truth. He sends me friends to direct and counsel, friends to comfort and encourage, friends to rub off my rough edges and challenge my complacency. In scripture, sermons, chance conversations and odd (and sometimes I do mean odd!) encounters he gives me continuous reminders of his love, affection and commitment no matter the state of my heart, my theology or my relationships.

The passage of time is a difficult process to accept for all of us. We long to mature but don’t want to grow older, let alone old. But to some I am ancient already, to those born this century I am practically a relic. There is no way to control this process or make it less humbling. Hair falls out and doesn’t grow again. Weight is harder to shift. I simply cannot eat two helpings of dessert. Ever. Again. (Strictly speaking).

But the flip side is that I know some things now. I have personal history and experience to draw on. My opinions carry weight. People assume I know what I’m talking about. They have confidence in me, treat me like a grownup, essentially. This was not always so. The heart remains a child, someone once said, and it is certainly true of mine. The same vulnerabilities I had as a child remind me to stay humble, focused and not too self-absorbed. From my teenage tears and all points between then and now, God has been with me. My constant companion. My provider. My witness. My source and my destination.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

And earth has nothing I desire besides you

My flesh and heart may fail

But God is the strength of my heart

And my portion forever  (Ps 73 v 25 – 26)