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.

Day 10. Pretty quiet.

Yep. It’s been pretty quiet round here since I started my Lent discipline of not complaining. Following that principle of ‘if you have nothing positive to say, say nothing’, I have been a whole lot quieter of late. I have also noticed how much I usually find to complain about. I won’t pretend I haven’t slipped up – sometimes very badly – but on the whole, I think I am managing to keep a fairly firm grip on my tongue.

And there’s the rub. What comes out is purely an expression of what’s inside. And for this attempt to stop complaining to be sustainable, it’s the inside that needs to change. I realise I need Jesus to help me with this. As with every significant behavioural change I have successfully made in my life, I can’t really take credit for anything other than a sometimes grudging willingness to become a different version of myself. To be upgraded, so to speak. It’s God who does the work. And He does it at my pace, not His. He doesn’t force things on me but as I mature, I find Him showing me areas that need work. My old ways, my childish ways, are no longer sufficient. Just as growing children find each birthday brings not only presents and celebrations but new responsibilities and expectations. And just as parents try to show how to meet these, God also steps in to help me with the changes I need to make.

Like when I gave up smoking. Not that I was a heavy smoker. I rarely smoked more than 2 cigarettes a day in the last year of my habit. But I needed them both. Daily. I had eventually to admit to myself that each failure to crack the habit was a sign that I needed help. But I was a bit embarrassed to admit that I really had a problem. I had also made a pact with myself not to smoke beyond the age of 30. But the night before that birthday, I had to face the fact that I wouldn’t be able to simply stop the next day. Not without either divine assistance or hypnosis. (I will always choose divine assistance over hypnosis. Just so you know). So I essentially handed my cigarettes over to Jesus and asked him to look after them for me. And guess what. He hasn’t given them back. The physical addiction was relatively quickly dealt with, though the psychological one took a while longer.  And yes of course I had my moments of failure. But Jesus helped me get back on track.

So fast forward now, to no complaining. To the new, quieter me.

At this point in writing this post, my computer switched itself off without warning to install some updates. The whole screen went blank. I couldn’t believe it. Then I thought, this is like a metaphor for what God’s Holy Spirit is doing in me a bit at the moment. I am shut down. In my attempts to do or be better I am silenced by the stuff inside me that needs sorting out. The one who put me together is giving me an update. There is, apparently, teaching in every moment. When my laptop eventually switched itself on again, I was relieved to see it had autosaved the first part of this post, which I had already mentally waved goodbye.

Like the computer, I’m sure I will be switched on again with some new language to replace the old, just as my laptop is greatly enhanced in ways I cannot yet see but know I will notice in due course. I’m looking forward to it.