Monday, February 15, 2021

Riding the Backwards Bicycle

 The Transfiguration! Mark 9:2-9

Remember when you were a kid, and it suddenly dawned on you, “Whoa. What if my green, is really your blue, and my blue is really your green?” Did that happen to you? Or maybe it was just me. I think this happened to me when I was learning about color blindness. And this strange idea of differing perceptions entered my brain. What if we just name our realities the same thing, but really, all of our realities are totally different? What if your “green” is my “blue” and vice versa. Well, as an eight year old, it totally blew my mind. 

And then we learned about how the light hits the eye in just a certain way, and the light gets sort of bent, and what we see as different colors are actually different spectrums of light, different ways the light gets bent, and so that’s how we can differentiate between red and yellow, blue and orange, green and violet. These light receptors within our eyes transmit messages to the brain and that’s how we get color. Ok. So, not so mind-blowing after all. Green is green, because our eyes basically all see in the same “way” and our brains basically process that color similarly. 

But if we go deeper, if we think further, we’ll come to realize that all of our reality is in our brains.  Everything we experience, all of our sensations, emotions, questions and confusions, it’s all happening in our brains. How do I know that my green is the same as yours? Maybe my eight year old self wasn’t that far off after all.

So. Yeah. Dan and I just watched episode 1 of “The Brain” on PBS. It’s this series written and by David Eagleman who is a neuroscientist who is fascinated by this grey, jello-like three pound wrinkly blob that we carry around inside our sculls. So basically, this means, that I am now a neuroscience expert. Ask me anything. I figured it all out from one fifty-five minute episode on PBS. 

But really, in this first episode, Eagleman explores the concept of “reality.” What’s really “real,” and how do we know what’s real? How many times do we perceive something to be the case, and then later, find out that it was totally not true? 

Or, how many times have we been able to see two different realities of the seemingly same object? There’s a new one on the internet these days. Have you seen it? It’s the one of either a dog or a man running through the snowy woods. If you stare at it long enough, you can trick your mind into seeing both. Or there was the shoe one, where you’d see either the pink or the blue shoe? Or the dress one way back years ago. Was it gold and white, or blue and black? That one caused all kinds of arguments for weeks after. 

And as a teacher and a pastor, I can’t tell you how often it has happened when someone has come up to me to say that they either loved or hated my sermon, that it really spoke to them, or they absolutely disagreed with it, and then, when they go to describe how it impacted them, when they go to explain their experience to me, I wonder if we were actually in the same room, let alone listening to the same sermon. 

So anyway, back to this documentary. It turns out that our brain is tricking us all the time. We are constantly weeding through a massive amount of information and our brain is sifting through it all and deciding which things are worth focusing on. It’s going on all the time, all day, every day. We are taking in a ridiculous amount of sensory information and our brains are picking and choosing what is worth emphasizing. We get so used to these patterns of picking and choosing, these algorithms, that they just run on autopilot. We do things automatically without even thinking about them. How often have you gotten in your car and then suddenly arrived at work or at the grocery store, and you can’t really remember how you “got” there? Or, for me, when I was a kid, if I slowed down and really thought about it as I recited the Our Father, I couldn’t get through it, but if I sped through it, I knew all the words by heart? Turns out, that even though we don’t remember it, we even had to form algorithms for how to see. Even if we were born with perfectly functioning corneas, we still didn’t know how to see. That’s something we had to learn.

So there was this guy, Mike May, who went blind after an accident at the age of three. Fifty years later, because of developments in science and technology, he was given a cornea transplant. Amazing, right?! This guy is healed. So they take off the bandages after the transplant, and he opens his eyes, and now that the mechanics are all fixed up, he should be able to see, right? Well, no. He’d gone so long not seeing that his brain adapted, he formed new ways of “seeing” through his other senses, and getting his sight back was a lot more difficult than just getting new eyes. He would look at his two sons and not know who was whom. Once a Paralympic skier, able to navigate between trees and people and other obstacles going twenty miles an hour through the use of his other senses, now that he could technically “see,” he could no longer tell the difference between shadows and holes and a forty foot spruce right in his way. Turns out, it was really difficult for him to re-adapt to seeing again. He needed to create a totally new algorithm. When he lost his sight, he had to retrain his brain to see a different way. And now that he can technically “see” again, he has to re-retrain his brain. And it hasn’t been easy. Years after his transplant, he’s still struggling. When he was young, his brain was so elastic that he could adapt fairly easily, even to the point where when he talks about the accident today, he doesn’t recall it as being a big deal at all. His other faculties took over and so his capacity for seeing was displaced by the super-functioning of his other senses. But now. Now he has to function under an entirely different set of neurological relationships, and I wonder, if sometimes, he doesn’t just close his eyes or choose to wear a blindfold just so he can go back to the way things were before, when he didn’t have vision, but when he could still see.


So David Eagleman decided to check in on this experiment. A bunch of grad students were wearing these special glasses during 100% of their waking hours. These glasses had special prisms that basically switched what was seen into a mirror image of itself. So, essentially, what was “actually” on the right side was “seen” on the left side. And what was actually on the left side was “seen” on the right. You’d reach for an apple with your left hand, but you’d miss it, because it was actually on your right. So Eagleman decides to try on these glasses for himself. I mean, how hard can it be? He just has to adapt, right? Make the calculation in his brain that the wine bottle he sees on his left is on his right, and the glass he sees on his right is actually on his left. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t make that calculation. It wasn’t a logical decision he could make. His brain had been “seeing” the world in such a way for so long that he couldn’t figure out how to pour the bottle of wine into the cup. In fact, it made him nauseous after just a short time, and he had to take the glasses off. But. Here’s the good news. One of the grad students was there who had been wearing these special glasses for the last two weeks. And, at the beginning, he’d had a similar experience - the expectation that he could account for the change, the failure to account for the change, the clumsiness, the mess, the frustration. But after about a week, things started to change. His brain started to adapt. New pathways were being written. The brain was “talking” to itself in different ways, and after two weeks, it was no big deal to pour that bottle of wine into that glass. He could travel through a maze just fine. How’d he do it? He’d gained more sensory experience, he’d made mistakes, adjusted, and tried again. He’d spilled a lot of wine. He broke a lot of glasses. He walked into a lot of walls. But every time he did, he’d get information from his other senses that would help him adapt to this new way of “seeing” the world. He couldn’t rationalize his way out of this situation. There was no logical way out of this. He had to live in to it in order to solve it. And that’s messy. And hard. And damn inconvenient. It required that he slow things down. That he do things differently. That he try things and fail. And then that he try them again.

Ok. One more example, because I know this is weird stuff to explain. Destin Sandlin is an engineer who started a really popular YouTube series called “Smarter Every Day.” In one of these episodes, some fellow welders whom he works with played a trick on him. They constructed a bicycle that works the opposite of how every other bicycle works. When you turned the handlebars to the right, the bike went left. When you turned the handlebars to the left, the bike went right. He “understood” the change perfectly. He knew cognitively, rationally, what he needed to do to right that bicycle. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t ride the bicycle. He took this bicycle with him on talks and presentations all over the country and had others try it. He even offered them two hundred dollars if they could ride that bike just ten feet without falling over. And no one could do it. Everyone could “comprehend” how these changes to this bike were made, how they would impact the functioning of this bike. They “knew” what they needed to do to accommodate those changes. And yet. Nobody could ride the bike. Again, though, the good news? He figured it out, after eight months of trying every day. He could ride the backwards bike. But can you guess what happened when he tried to get back on a regular bike again? Yup. Disaster. But only for about twenty minutes or so. And then his mind just clicked, he “remembered” how to ride his bike the old way, and he was off, cycling down the road. The folks watching him saw the instant transformation from not being able to ride the bike to being able to ride the bike and they thought he’d been faking it all along. They thought he was just being silly, falling off the bike on purpose, but really, he was re-retraining his mind how to ride a bike. He had to “wake” himself up to that previous algorithm, the one he’d known all along.

This is the cognitive dissonance that goes through Peter in our story today. He thinks he sees one thing, Jesus, his buddy, the guy who makes fart jokes and spits watermelon seeds and was once caught picking his nose, is now transfigured right in front of Peter, dazzlingly white such that no one could bleach them. There’s Jesus. But it’s not Jesus. Not any Jesus that Peter nows. This Jesus doesn’t fit into his previous algorithm. And so he freaks out. He doesn’t know what to say, but still feels like he has to say something, so he says, “Uh, yeah. Let’s build some houses.” He tries to ride the bike and he falls on his ass. He’s given knew information that doesn’t fit with the old. They’ve switched his bike around, they’ve given him new glasses, his “green” is suddenly “red.” 

“This is my Son, the Beloved,” God says. “Listen to him!”

And then it’s gone. It’s over. The bike is back to the way it was before. The glasses are taken off. The green is green again. Jesus is back to himself. And they’re walking down the mountain.  Everything is back to the way it was before. And yet. Something has changed. Peter cannot undo new pathways that have been etched into his brain. Somehow he has to find a way to live in a world where Jesus is both the man he knows and loves and follows and trusts, and this other thing, this being in dazzlingly white robes, conversing with the prophets of old. He’s got to figure out the both/and. Jesus is both God and human. Jesus is both the Messiah, and the one who must suffer and die. Peter’s got to ride the backwards and the regular bikes all at the same time. He’s been given the eyes to see, but he doesn’t yet have the neurological shortcuts to back it up. Now, he has to function as both blind and able to see. 

They come down from the mountain and Jesus tells them to say nothing until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.


Well. Maybe because they’re still processing. They’re still trying to make sense of this both-God-and-Man algorithm. And it’s not going to make sense until they see Jesus rise from the dead on the third day. That’s when the neurological or spiritual pathways will be complete. That’s when the switch will be flipped - when they can ride both bikes, see both colors, wear and not-wear the glasses at the same time. 

In other words, we can train our minds to see the gold/white and the blue/black dresses. We can see both the dog and the hiker. Maybe, even, we can see the God and the man in Jesus Christ. We can see the one who will suffer and die and the one who will be raised again on the third day. Maybe we can’t see them both at the same time, but we can move between the two with a kind of neural elasticity that’s actually really common among young kids. Maybe we can have faith like a child - an ability to go back and forth between two differing languages or two differing realities and it’s no big deal. A sort of spiritual plasticity or elasticity.

We still have some theological and spiritual elasticity. We can still see the both/and. We can still see that Jesus is both things. But learning how to do that is going to be messy. We’re going to bump into walls and spill a lot of wine and mistake shadows for trees. We are going to fall off our bikes. We are going to insist that the shoes are pink while others swear they’re blue. It’s going to take experimenting and trial and error and mistakes and letting go of our old ways of doing things. It’s going to take time. And trust. And lots and lots of paying attention. 

What do you see? Green or Red? Man? Or God? 



Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Back to the Vulnerable Spaces

Mark 1:29-39

 Reading the Gospel of Mark is like flying down on a roller coaster. There’s no slow cranking up that first hill to gain momentum. It’s all momentum. We’re still in the first chapter, friends. So far, Jesus has been baptized by John, rushed straight from there to spend forty days in the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan, then he goes to Galilee to proclaim the good news, so he gathers up a couple of disciples, and then a couple more, then he goes to Capernaum, teaches in the synagogue, heals a man with an unclean spirit, and after he leaves the synagogue he hangs out at Simon Peter’s house where he cures his mother-in-law, and then is inundated by all the sick and possessed people in the city, so he heals them, too, then he goes back out into the wilderness to pray, Peter tracks him down and says, “Uh. What are you even doing? Everybody’s looking for you!”, and Jesus says, “Meh. Let’s go somewhere else. They need me, too.” So then they leave Capernaum and travel all over Galilee “preaching in their synagogues and driving out demonic spirits.” Phew. Mark is not a Gospel that you can swallow whole. Mark’s Gospel is not one that you should stay up all night reading because the suspense is so great, no matter how much we might want to. Mark is like dark chocolate. We gotta take it in little chunks, savor each verse, think on each word; otherwise we’ll wake the next day with a mystery thriller novel headache and a kind of cloudy understanding of what just happened here. We could talk about all kinds of things just in our ten verses for today. We could talk about how Simon’s mother-in-law becomes the first deacon, we could wrestle with the idea that here we have yet another woman filling in a traditional female role of “service” and how maybe we ought to wrestle with that. We could talk about how healing and proclamation are so closely tied together. We could talk about how the message is the most important, but what comes out of the message is the healing. We could talk about how this Gospel has moved us from the wilderness, to the city, to the home, as if we are getting a telescopic view of the story and then zooming down, further and further, closer and closer, until we get to the intimate moment of Simon’s mother-in-law’s fever. We could talk about how this is the first “house church,” where preaching and healing is done, people are served, and then sent out to share the Gospel.

But there’s this one peculiar thing that jumped out at me on this go ‘round. It seems so strange to me. Why does Jesus go back out into the wilderness? It’s the same word - eremos - that is used in the previous verse when the Spirit immediately drives him into the eremos - the wilderness. And, I mean, he does this a lot. He goes off by himself to pray, out into the middle of nowhere - to deserted places. And we’ve often interpreted this to mean that Jesus needs time to rejuvenate, to connect with his Father, to press the reset buttons so that he can go back out and heal and proclaim and connect and touch and be touched. And, like Jesus, we need this time, too. They called it our “quiet times” when I was in high school. But I really think there is something more happening here beyond just the fact that Jesus was really good with his spiritual disciplines.

Maybe I have this on the brain because I’ve been working on the Ignatian exercises. I’ve been meeting with a spiritual director once a week - and, side note, everyone needs a spiritual director, how do we get more people more access to spiritual directors? - anyway, I’ve been working on these exercises for about, I don’t know, eight weeks or something. And this past week, I got held back. I need to go back and take remedial spiritual exercises for a week. Ignatius 090. No college or even spiritual “credits,” no sprucing up of my resume, just me, going back to what I “should” have learned a long time ago. Mostly, this is because I’m having a hard time, these days, truly feeling and accepting the love of God, like you know really feeling it, really knowing it in my heart, and not just accepting it in my brain. See, that’s what I tend to do when something feels hard. I go straight into my head. And this week, I’ve had to work on forgoing the logic and the reasoning and the maxims and the theological treatises, and just sit and dwell in God’s love for me. And let me tell ya, I’d rather be wrestling with Wittgenstein or parsing Greek verbs or cleaning out my cat box, than sitting around waiting on God. I mean, there’s so much to do! My church needs a brilliant idea so we can experience some  revitalization. Folks are waiting in hours long lines at food banks. We need to dismantle White Supremacy and learn how to be anti-racist and sign up for COVID vaccines and get my kid through second grade phonics. Oh. And one more thing. In order to do this, in order to go back and listen for the sounds of God’s love for me, I’m going to have to ask for it. I’m going to have to go back to what it was like, so many years ago, when I feel like I asked God for this, I asked God to be present, to show God’s self, to reveal God’s love for me, to heal me and to take this cup of suffering from me, and I waited and I waited and I waited and I got, what felt like to me at the time, no answer. Just crickets. Silence. It was hard. It was a little traumatizing. I don’t like thinking about it. But in order to do my “assignment,” in order to pass remedial faith 101, I was going to have to return back to that time, and maybe even all of those times, when I begged for God, and all I thought I got was silence. I was going to have to go back to my deserted place - my wilderness.

Why on earth would I want to go back there? It was scary there. And dark. And lonely. I was all in my head, all the time. I asked and I asked and I begged, and I got…nothin. Why on earth would I want to go back to the place that was so hard, so empty, back to that place that hurt so much?

Why on earth would Jesus want to go back there? Back to the wilderness? Back to the place where he was tempted by Satan, back to the place where he was surrounded by wild animals, back to the place where this traumatizing event happened to him? Why does he keep going back? 

Even Peter asks this, in a way. We soften the language in English of course. But katadioko is much more hostile a word than “hunted” or “searched for.” Peter can’t believe what’s going on here. Jesus has left his post. He’s stopped doing the good things. He thinks Jesus is lost and has forgotten his task. What are you doing here, Jesus? People need you!

Jesus, as usual, understands something Peter does not. He understands that in order to heal, in order to do any good of any form in the world, we need connect back to our hard stories.

And then I thought about Peters Creek, and how you all often refer to your rough experience as a church as “the wilderness” and about how now you all feel like you’ve gotten past that tough time of heartache and division and contention. You all want to be done with the wilderness as much as I do. We’re ready to build. To grow. To do something. Let’s put the past behind us. Let’s move forward. Let’s help. Let’s heal. And proclaim the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Why on earth would we want to go back to the wilderness?

Well. I think it’s because we need it. We need our wilderness experiences. We need to be reminded of our wilderness experiences so that we can reframe the story, we can reframe the traumatic experience, we can tap back in to all that hurt and heartache and vulnerability. Because if we don’t go back to that vulnerability, even just a little, if we don’t go back to the hard stuff, back to the wilderness, we WILL forget the love of God. And we will forget how to heal. Because it is through our brokenness that we are connected to one another. It is through our vulnerability that we are connected to the vulnerability of Jesus. It is through our brokenness that we are able to offer the healing words of the Gospel of Christ to someone else. 

I guess what I want to say is that Jesus touches back to his vulnerability, back to his hard experiences, so that he is able to heal others. It is through his stripes that we are healed. It is through the fact that Jesus has been in the wilderness, has heard the silence of God, has doubted God’s love for him, that we, too, are saved. There’s this really important connection between going back to our hard stories and healing. Sometimes we have to go back to the “place” where we’ve been hurt, we have to remember the hurt, so that we can connect with others and help heal their hurt. 

Jesus goes back to the wilderness to be with God. 

Jesus goes back to the wilderness so that he can continue to be with the broken and fevered and demon-possessed.

We, too, need to go back to the wilderness to be with God.

We, too, need to go back to the wilderness so that we can be with each other.

I participated in Leaderfest yesterday. We invited Ralph Lowe to come and talk to us about the issue of racism and our role at a church in fighting for these issues of justice. He talked about being “The Beloved Community” and about how we are all called to participate in dismantling white supremacy. But, I asked, “How do I, a privileged white woman, enter in to this fight? I know that there’s no magic wand I can wave to fix this. I know that I can’t be the “white savior” who swoops in and saves the day. How do I do it? How do I enter in to the pain of those for whom I’ve never experienced life like they have?” And he said, “You can tell the story of when you were wrong. You can tell the story of how you screwed up, how you didn’t do it right, and then what you learned from that, describe how you learned from that.” He was saying, essentially, I think, that in order for us to be a part of the healing of our communities, we have to go back to our wildernesses, go back to when we absolutely didn’t get it right, or when things were really hard, or when God was totally silent, and we have to tell the story. We have to return to our scars and wait and listen and find the healing that has come out of them. When we go back to our deserted places, other folks listen and watch and wait, too, and they learn how we got out, they learn how they might get out too.

When I was twelve, my little brother was killed in a car accident. I know I’ve told this story before. He was six. My mom was driving. It happened at an intersection pretty close to our house, one that we’d go through on a regular basis, maybe even twice a day. It was just our route. The way to get home from a whole number of places. When Jake died, my parents tried avoiding that intersection. They’d take back roads through other neighborhoods just to avoid going back to the place where the awful thing had happened. And then, they just, stopped. They started going the way they’d always gone, back to the intersection where our whole world crumbled. Maybe it was just because old habits are hard to quit. But I wonder if there was some kind of subconscious healing going on there, too. How hard it must have been for my mom to make that same left turn under those same traffic lights past that same pole with those identical looking cars zooming past? How did she do it? How did she keep going back to that place where she experienced such awfulness, day after day, twice a day, just to get us to and from soccer practice and the swimming pool and Girl Scouts? One of the businesses on the corner allowed us to put a black ribbon on the pole near where my brother was killed. Every year, or maybe when it just got worn out, I don’t remember, my mom or a friend would replace it. It was a symbol. It marked the place where Jake had died. And just its being placed there was a testimony that healing might maybe someday come, that something good might happen, even if it was just simply that we’d never forget that suntanned boy with dirt under his fingernails and a goofy grin. My mom went back to the place of her traumatic experience, and she survived it.

Later, my parents would petition the city to get the traffic lights changed to make it a safer intersection. They could have so easily just walked away, never turned back. They could have left their wilderness behind. We could have moved and never had to have seen that intersection for the rest of our lives. But instead, they went back, day after day, they went back to the wilderness, and then something changed, something good happened, lives were saved. 

We go back to our wildernesses because each time we do, we bring a little healing back with us. We go back to our wildernesses because when we are reminded of our pain, we can enter in to other’s pain, other’s wildernesses, and I think that’s how healing works. I can accept Jesus’s healing because I know that he has been to the wilderness. I can hear the loving message of the Gospel because I know that Jesus has been to the same desolate places that I have, that he kept going back to those desolate places, and he took life from that, and he gave it to the people. 

I think maybe God wants us all, from time to time, to pause, to enter back into our wildernesses, just to be with God, just to be with the one who suffered and died and descended into hell and on the third day rose again. Only then, after we’ve gone back to our hard stories, will we be able to carry the peace and healing message of Christ in a way that others can hear it. Maybe even so that we can hear it.

Thanks be to God.