“Be Careful Little Mouths What You Say”

baldwinI came across a most interesting article on “How Complaining Rewires Your Brain for Negativity.”  Essentially, it is a [not so surprising] corollary to the power of gratitude—underscored in a post from November, 2018 on “Count Your Blessings!” 

In a nutshell, the article speaks of the brain’s desire or inclination to create shortcuts… and how the creation of some shortcuts (like complaining) can be unhealthy (no matter how “natural” it is or has become):

Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you.

And here’s the kicker: complaining damages other areas of your brain as well. Research from Stanford University has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus — an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought…

While it’s not an exaggeration to say that complaining leads to brain damage, it doesn’t stop there. When you complain, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol shifts you into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood and energy away from everything but the systems that are essential to immediate survival. One effect of cortisol, for example, is to raise your blood pressure and blood sugar so that you’ll be prepared to either escape or defend yourself.

All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. It even makes the brain more vulnerable to strokes.

Interesting (but, again, not surprising to me) is the way that the complaining of others around us can accrue in our souls and poison:

Since human beings are inherently social, our brains naturally and unconsciously mimic the moods of those around us, particularly people we spend a great deal of time with. This process is called neuronal mirroring, and it’s the basis for our ability to feel empathy. The flip side, however, is that it makes complaining a lot like smoking — you don’t have to do it yourself to suffer the ill effects. You need to be cautious about spending time with people who complain about everything. Complainers want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. Think of it this way: If a person were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You’d distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers.

Fortunately, the article posits a few solutions. First, there’s the invitation to make your complaining productive.   I mean, if you’re going to go there, at least do so with constructive ends and means in mind and heart. “When you have something that is truly worth complaining about… engage in solution-oriented complaining. Think of it as complaining with a purpose.” It’s a variation of Paul’s telling us to speak the truth in love.

eckhart thank youAs powerful (and most relevant to spiritual formation) is our cultivating an attitude of gratitude. I say powerful because 1) it has proven impacts on health (cf, articles like “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude” from Psychology Today) and because 2) the majority of my complaints and complaining are so trivial in nature.

Altogether, it has me wanting
to give new life and intention
to the often neglected disciplines
of gratitude and keeping a joy journal…
and praying for the graces that I’d be aware of my complaining
and more automatically look for the things for which to be thankful!

So how’s this for starters? 
“Lord, thank you for air conditioning!” 
(Okay, okay… It’s a start!)

Inner Joy Beyond Outer Circumstance

[Prefacing Note: This post represents a fourth (and final) installment on Joy as it is characterized in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians [what some have called the “epistle of joy”… for all the ways the word appears throughout its four chapters]. Taking rich and meaningful words/concepts (like Joy) and distinguishing them from their secular-cultural counterparts (like “happiness” and “feeling good”) is a crucial task of spiritual formation.]

Having established the basis of peace with God in chapter 3 of Philippians (Letting Go… and Letting God), Paul advances to the close of his epistle with some sense of the outer peace that such a relationship brings:
• Individuals being reconciled (vs 2-3)
• Letting go of anxiety
• Being content in all circumstances

peace paintingAnd all this, again, as he writes in chains, behind bars!

It brings to mind an image of my mom in her final days.
Cancer and treatments had ravaged her body.
Outwardly, she was a shell of her former self.

“I’m sorry I am not more classy,” she feebly said at one point—referring, I suspect, to the ways her hair was not as kept as she would have preferred… and all the other indignities that death and dying can thrust on any soul with any amount of esteem.

It broke my heart to hear her speak that way.

I found a voice deep down in my crying,
“No Mom!
Class is not a matter of outer circumstance.
Class is a matter of inner character.
And you are one classy lady!”

It approaches, I believe,
the spirit of Paul’s closing words
about peace and joy in Philippians 4:

Life can ravage the body
and assault the heart–
tempting us to believe we’ve lost our way and class
But Deep calls to deep–
where eternal joy and peace abide,
inviting us to sing—even in the chains,
“It is well. It is well with my soul.”

Faith: The Joy of Letting Go and Letting God!

[Prefacing Note: This post represents a third installment (of four) on Joy as it is characterized in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians [what some have called the “epistle of joy”… for all the ways the word appears throughout its four chapters].   Taking rich and meaningful words/concepts (like Joy) and distinguishing them from their secular-cultural counterparts (like “happiness” and “feeling good”) is a crucial task of spiritual formation.]

William Barclay speaks of the burden that religion had become (and was still becoming) in the time of Jesus and Paul.  So important to the Jews was the keeping of the law that each commandment (they counted 613 total in the Torah) was broken down into deeper and fuller specifics.  As one example, Barclay narrows in on just one kind of work forbidden on the sabbath: carrying a burden.

The Law lays it down that the Sabbath Day is to be kept holy,
and that on it no work is to be done.
That is a great principle.

But Jewish legalists had a passion for definition.
So they asked: What is work?
All kinds of things were classified as work.
For instance, to carry a burden on the Sabbath Day is to work.

 But next a burden has to be defined.
So the Scribal Law lays it down that a burden is…
food equal in weight to a dried fig,
enough wine for mixing in a goblet,
milk enough for one swallow,
honey enough to put upon a wound,
oil enough to anoint a small member,
water enough to moisten an eye-salve,
paper enough to write a customs house notice upon,
ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet,
reed enough to make a pen’—
and so on endlessly.

So they spent endless hours arguing
whether a man could or could not lift a lamp
from one place to another on the Sabbath,
whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out with a needle in his robe,
whether a woman might wear a brooch or false hair,
even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb,
if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath Day, [and on and on].

These things to them were the essence of religion.
Their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations.
                                                –William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Vol 1), p. 124-125

We can imagine, then, the complete Joy —
when standing with God was not a matter of such complex rule-keeping
but a matter of simply accepting a relationship freely offered.
Even so, Paul writes–
in the wake of letting go of all these former laws and rules
as the basis of his being right with God:

I didn’t receive God’s approval by obeying his laws. The opposite is true! I have God’s approval through faith in Christ. This is the approval that comes from God and is based on faith  10that knows Christ. 

 7The things that I once considered valuable, I now consider worthless for Christ. 8It’s far more than that! I consider everything else worthless because I’m much better off knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. It’s because of him that I think of everything as worthless. I threw it all away in order to gain Christ  9and to have a relationship with him.  (Philippians 3)

It brings to mind a story which Henri Nouwen shares in
Our Greatest Gift:
A Meditation On Dying And Caring
.  He recounts a time of following the Flying Roleighs, a German troupe for a few weeks… and a conversation with the leader of the troupe:

        One day, I was sitting with Rodleigh in his caravan, talking about flying. He said, “As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher, The public might think tht I am the greatest star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.”
        “How does it work?” I asked.
        “The secret,” Rodleigh said, “is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything: when I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar.”
        “You do nothing!” I said, surprised.
        “Nothing,” Rodleigh repeated. “A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.”
        When Rodleigh said this with so much conviction, the words of Jesus flashed through my mind: “Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.” Dying is trusting in the catcher. To care for the dying is to say, “Don’t be afraid. Remember that you are the beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump. Don’t try to grab him; he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust.”

Not to be lost in Nouwen’s meditation on death and dying
is the way that the metaphor services our reflections on joy and faith.
There’s joy (Divine pleasure and delight) in the sweet release which is faith – letting go of all that tempts us to be in control or think we are in control…
and trusting in God’s Grace to catch us and carry us to our completion.

Joy in the Balance

[Prefacing Note: This post represents a second installment (of four) on Joy as it is characterized in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians [what some have called the “epistle of joy”… for all the ways the word appears throughout its four chapters].   Taking rich and meaningful words/concepts (like Joy) and distinguishing them from their secular-cultural counterparts (like “happiness” and “feeling good”) is a crucial task of spiritual formation.]

A paradox is the necessary bringing together of two seemingly contradictory premises into one greater, fuller Truth. 

Our Christian Faith is full of such tensions — beginning (and ending) with Jesus Christ, who is not only the chief paradox but who is, also, the great reconciler in all such tensions.

Among the paradoxes of our faith
is that which surrounds the truth about
our importance, our value, our place as individuals.

On the one hand, each of us is a precious child of God—
beloved and beautiful and sacred.
Writes Max Lucado:

If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.
If He had a wallet, Your photo would be in it.
He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning.
Whenever you want to talk, He’ll listen.
He could live anywhere in the universe, and He chose your heart.
What about the Christmas gift He sent you in Bethlehem;
not to mention that Friday at Calvary.
Face it… He’s crazy about you.

And yet, in necessary tension with this premise is the reality life isn’t about me or you.  As much as we think or behave otherwise, we are not the center of the Universe.

It’s a paradox at the heart of joy,
which we see there in Philippians 2:5ff –
which I might paraphrase as follows:

Have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus:
who, though he was beloved of God—
indeed, at the Center which is God,
did not count equality with God
as something to be hoarded.

But, who emptied himself –
wiling to live the lowliest of lives, and
willing to die the most gruesome of deaths.

As made known in Jesus,
Joy (Divine delight and pleasure)
Is a matter of both:
believing that we are God’s beloved
AND
humbly stepping down into a place of lowliness and servitude.

Truth is, we all need to variously hear
each of these messages throughout our lives.
Sometimes we forgot how beloved we are.
Sometimes we forget that we don’t need
to take ourselves so seriously.

For some reason, Psalm 8:4-5 comes to mind here:

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
And yet, you have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.

Yes, we are crowned with glory and honor!
But, beware:
we ought not take ourselves too seriously;
we aren’t at the top of the pecking order!
Or, as John Ortberg puts it,
“There is a God (and it’s not you)
Who has a wonderful plan for your life!”

In the balance of that glory and humility, Dear Friends, is Joy –
God’s delight and pleasure over us… and in us!

Singing and Dancing… in the Chains!

dancing in the rain2

A carry-over from “Holy Humor Sunday” is seeing Easter as a perfect season to engage and ponder God’s gift of Joy. (For this reason, we’ve decided, at the churches I am “supplying” through the end of June, to focus on Paul’s letter to the Philippians [what some scholars call the “Epistle of Joy”… for the many ways it emphasizes joy and rejoicing from beginning to end].)

Essential, to me, as an early, first step in any exploration of the topic is discriminating between joy and happiness. Here, I might point out that Paul has a lot to say about joy in Philippians (and elsewhere) but is rather sluggish when it comes to any discourse on happiness. Or, to put it another way, Paul does not have a lot to be happy about as he writes many of his letters. (Philippians, for example, is written from prison.) But this poverty of outward circumstance does not mean he can not share his joy and a call to rejoice. Obviously, in spite of cultural tendencies otherwise, there is a difference between happiness and joy.

It’s akin to a distinction which John Ortberg (drawing from work with Dallas Williard) makes in his book, Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You. There he writes about the distinction between self and soul. Here, too, he writes about a cultural confusion about the difference between the two – and the ways that self has eclipsed real regard for and understanding (and appreciation) of soul. But, in spite of the ways that the two might have been rolled into one, there are pronounced differences: the self is a “stand-alone, do-it-yourself unit” while the soul is a connecting and integrating reality which is ever reaching out and beyond – to God and others and true life/living.

Here, Ortberg’s discussion helps me frame a key distinction (or two) between joy and happiness. So that (and, here, I am still working to fully flesh this out in my mind and heart): happiness is something the self is looking to attach itself to in this world… while joy is something the soul finds in its connection to God and others.  Happiness, then, is self-based and attached to temporal things of this world. (Note that the connection, in fact, between happiness and happenstance.) Joy, on the other hand, is soul-based and a matter of divine/sacred connections. (No wonder to me, then, that joy and not happiness is framed as a “fruit of the Holy Spirit” in our lives.)

Worship ended at one of the churches this last Sunday with our singing Horatio Spafford’s “It is Well with My Soul.”  Like Paul, Spafford had little to be happy about as he wrote this hymn.  He had just lost his home and a large portion of his business in the great Chicago fire of 1871.  And, as if that were not enough, the immediate inspiration for his lyrics was viewing the general location where his four daughters had drowned (while making passage across the Atlantic to a European vacation).

No Spafford, like Paul (and like a whole host of other souls we might list here), had nothing to be that happy about. But, connected as they were to realities beyond this world, they had plenty of reason to take delight in the Divine. (That’s the way one author and pastor defines joy: “Divine/Eternal delight/pleasure.” I like that!)

Even so, dear friends,
somewhere out there…
I see a cancer patient singing,
I see a lonely, mourning spouse singing,
I see an addict singing,
I see a prisoner singing,
I see a refugee singing,…

And though their circumstances
be filled with chains and prison bars,
dirty mangers and splintery crosses;
they sing for joy—
taking delight
in a Lord of Life, a Love
which can not and will not let us go!