This Moment, Rejoice and Be Glad

First, I need to come clean. Last spring, when Yena asked me if I would be willing to write and deliver a sermon for our summer guest preacher series, I said sure! She then invited me and the other guest preachers to gather for a workshop and discussion on the sermon writing approach. At the workshop, Yena recommended that we find a few works of scripture – either from the lectionary or some that already had some resonance and meaning for us and then map them out, pray on them, meditating on them and then, when we felt we had at last landed on a scripture that spoke to us, decide on it, and let her know what the scripture we were planning use for our sermon.

But I didn’t do that. Me? I knew right away what scripture I wanted preach on – it was the one that had the verse “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it” . I loved that verse and I didn’t even know what book it came from – or its context, but I assumed it must be about something happy and wonderful, and someone being very happy and feeling wonderful and enjoying the moment – kind of like a “la la la la la la live for today” — which is kind of what how I like to be and how I like to live — so it would be a great scripture for me to preach on!. So, I made that my selection and thought of a theme and came up with an outline and told Yena what it would be and then…after all that, I read the passage.

Oh my, Psalm 118 was just not what I had thought it was about.

Not understanding it, I jumped to the online commentary and I found that it’s not even certain who wrote Psalm 118 or under what circumstance – it could be by David, or about David. It could about Exodus; it could be about Jesus. But there isn’t a consensus.

So, I went back to read it again…and it’s just confusing for me. Here is someone, (the Psalmist) who seemingly is and has been in trouble. He talks of emotions that I think we can relate to – fear, rejection, failure, death, In a most provocative and chilling image he speaks being surrounded by enemies who he compares to being angry bees. He also speaks of being severely disciplined by God.. And yet, the Psalmist expresses gratitude and joy, and calls on the house of Israel, calls on the house of Aaron and calls us, all of us — to be grateful to God.

To which, in this context, I ask — Why?

I admit I can get frustrated with scripture sometimes – because here I wonder, why such gratitude? Is this just some “pollyanish” expression? Is he just trying to invoke the power of positive thinking? Blind faith? Just not dealing with his real problems and saying “life is bad but hey it’s all good?”

Many of you may know my background – I’m relatively new to Church, having joined my very first church – this one – when I was 40 – so praise and worship is something that I have had to learn. So, maybe it’s that I’m still a bit uncomfortable with it – but still, rather than just accept this, I have wonder what is God delivering here that is making the Psalmist so thankful?

Why be so joyful? Why? What is he seeing that I am not?

I almost came to Yena to say, “can I change my scripture, because I thought this was speaking to me, but it’s just not”. But certainly what I have learned in our church is to stick with the Word, study it, think about it, look at it from a few different angles and perspectives, discern what I can, take a multi layered approach if I need to – and by all means, talk about it with others in and outside of our community of faith — and meaning and resonance will emerge and evolve as we seek together to get to what is true.

So—I’ll take you along with me now and work this through.

I started by asking myself – If the scripture is indeed telling us to be grateful in the face of pain and challenges, why? Why be so grateful and joyful — really what does it give us? What is the benefit? Why do this? What do we get out of it? What does God get out of it? Why are we being called to this? Why?

My first inquiry was through science, more specifically in recent neuroscientific research . Neuropsychologist Robert Hanson has done extensive research on the science of happiness and the brain. The author of several books , most notably a work called Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. (Hanson, 2016)

Dr. Hanson’s basic premise is that our brains are structured, wired and, designed if you will, to keep us safe and able to survive. As such, our brain must be constantly vigilant, on alert and scanning our environment for threats and for things that will potentially do us harm. The brain therefore must and does take in, learn from, recalls and remember our negative experiences so that we may protect ourselves from them in the future. As Dr. Hanson says it, our brains naturally have a negativity bias and are like “Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good”.

And the result of our brains constant scanning for and taking in all that negativity? Our tendency thus is to live with fear, anxiety, stress, pessimism, irritability, distrust, disconnect, and alienation from others.

Negative thoughts and emotions become much more intense and prominent in our minds than positive ones.

Let me give you some examples. I commute on the beltway each day – and upon occasion, when I am trying to merge, some kind person will allow me in – and I wave to them, and they wave back at me, and there is a quick moment of connection and it is a nice feeling! But then someone angrily cuts me off, and I break hard, and they may flip me off. Which one memory stays with me? Which one may I ruminate on? How about our job review? You meet with your boss and she hands you that write up of your yearly evaluation. You read over all those wonderful things your colleagues say about you in that “meets and exceeds expectations” column but your eye goes over to that “needs improvement / does not meet expectations” column and you fixate on that! Something more personal — I am standing in front of you now – I admit – not the most comfortable of situations. But though, as I look around – many, if not most of you , are smiling at me, or nodding or just looking neutral. But maybe a few of you don’t like what you hear, or are bored and are scowling and rolling your eyes. What’s that going to do to me…I’m going to notice those reactions and I am going to feel stress, and feel tense, nervous, and maybe lose my confidence. When I leave here, who am I going to remember? The 99 people who smiled at me, or the one person who rolled his eyes? Yes! That one! Why? Because our brains are wired to that negative bias to protect us from harm. That person who cut us off in traffic, who gave us the poor job review, who is rolling their eyes at me right now – to our brain – they represents a danger or a threat, and we need, from an evolutionary perspective, to learn from that negative experience, not the positive one, to protect ourselves…So, in my case my brain is giving me that signal — avoid that person in the future, or even more so, don’t put yourself in a public speaking situation again! It’s too harmful and dangerous!, Despite that most people were positive, I am not going to remember that – my brain will latch on to the negative like Velcro.

The good news is we can, through practice, overcome or at least balance out this negativity bias. Not get rid of it – we certainly need to be understand and react to threats. But, we don’t have to be dominated by it, and ruled by it. Again, per Rick Hanson, to balance it out, we need to stay aware, alert, and aware, though out our day for the good, for the positive experiences that we have, and when we have those experiences (like that kind person who let us merge in on the beltway), rather than waste them or ignore them, or brush them off and forget about them – take 10 seconds, just 10 seconds and take them in, absorb them, savor them, let them land, and feel them – really feel them. In doing so, the neurons in your brain will fire and wire and will create a memory and a positive association that will shape and encode your brain anew. And If you do this intentionally just a few times a day, over time, your brain will be differently encoded, resulting in you feeling, and being more confident, calm, brave, loving, compassionate, creative, resilient, safe, happy and fulfilled.

In other words, the solution to the negativity bias? Is to believe and to boldly claim and do: this is the day that the Lord has made, Let us Rejoice and be glad in it; be alert and awake to what God is delivering and offering to you every day, , savor it, be thankful for it, take it in, and rejoice. Just as the Psalm 118 called us to do.

Another thing that helped me understand? A parable from Buddhism illustrates this well for me. It is the story of a woman who is walking through a forest. And during her walk she sees a tiger ahead, and obviously frightened, she turns on her heals and runs in the opposite direction. The tiger begins to chase her, and she runs and run and sees a cliff. And as the tiger is bearing down on her, rather than face the terrifying death of being mauled by a tiger, she makes the decision to jump off of that cliff. She jumps and yet on her way down, she is able to grab hold of a vine that is protruding from that mountain wall. And as she holds on, she looks below her and sees the rocks and steep canyons, and she looks above and sees the tiger looking over the side – right down at her.. And then, she looks in front of her – and growing out from the side of the mountain, within the thorns and the rocks…she sees…a red, ripe, plump, beautiful strawberry… and she holds on to the vine with one hand, and lets go with the other, and plucks off that strawberry, holds it to her nose, smells its fragrance, puts in in her mouth – and it is juicy and sweet – and it is the most delicious strawberry she has ever had. Emboldened and renewed, she was then able to understand what she needed to do get to safety

Despite the negative all around, her past looming above her, her future looking perilous– she was still able to be alert and aware to take in the good, despite the bad, and she took it in, savored it, appreciated It and was grateful for it. This is what the Psalmist understood, this is what the children were able to do with their game of I spy, this is what neuroscience tells us we should do, this is what we voiced together when we sang “Praise with elation, praise ever morning, God’s recreation of the new day” and “Morning by morning new mercies I see” and what we will sing together “Joyful Joyful we Adore thee”. This what God promises us – that there will be strawberries growing within our challenges and our pain – there always will be – and our job is to be awake to it, be alert to the gifts, for these are the gifts of the moment that the Lord has made – and we must rejoice in them.

And in doing so, we become the brave, loving, resilient, compassionate, serving people that I believe God wants us and needs us to be.

One more story – a personal one that helped me understand. Many of you may know my daughter Serena. She grew up in this church. She started her when she was in kindergarten – in Sunday school class with Will Rodman and Noah Wescoat and Jaime Nygaard was her teacher. And I am remembering when she was born. And there was so much activity after her birth – obstetricians and pediatricians and medical technicians and family – in an out. But after a few hours, all had left, and it was just baby Serena, cradled in my arms. With that gaze. And as I held her, in that gaze, I began to weep and to sob. The nurse came running in and asked me what was wrong? Was I in pain?

No no, I said no. What I said was “I am just going to miss her so much when she leaves for college”

And no the nurse did not say “what are you kidding? She is just two hours old! You already have her going off to college?” But instead she said “May I?” and she took Serena and put her face on my cheek and her chest on my shoulder and my hand on her back and she said – “just lay with her, feel her skin on yours, feel your breath against her, and just be with this moment”.

That nurse recognized that I needed to be aware of the gift that was right in front of me. She helped me create a long lasting positive experience, that I can tell you emboldened me as a parent and has stayed with me. Because last week, Serena left for college for the first time…. and there was no denying that I was so sad and torn. But that memory in the hospital is still so rich and real, I can go back to and still feel safe and be comforted by it. It also reminds me that I will have many positive experiences in the future… God will indeed deliver them, but my job is to savor them, take them in and let them mold my brain so that I can be the person that God needs me to be. That God wants all of us to be. That the world needs us to be. Compassionate, brave, confident, able and loving, unafraid, capable to service, spiritually fulfilled. .

And finally, back to the scripture — And I think back to the angst about this scripture and wondering why, in the face of all that hate and war, and enemies, and rejection and brokenness, the Psalmist was strong in his faith and in his gratitude and belief in God. Why?

He lived into what I now understand it is our job to do.. recognize that this was the day, this was the moment, that the Lord has made and then to rejoice. Rejoice and be glad. So let’s do that now: do as the children did – find something in your present experience, right now, that is positive.
This is the day, this is the moment, that the Lord has made……..let us rejoice, and be glad in it.
To God be the glory. Thanks be to God
Amen

Sources:

Hanson, Rick. Hardwiring Happiness: the New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. Harmony Books, 2016.

Hanson, Rick. Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Readhowyouwant.com Ltd, 2011.

Hanson, Rick. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONKrCpNqWLc

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