April 30, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I’d like you to take a moment to consider the wonder of your brain. According to a website called “Brain facts”, your brain has “85 billion neurons completing upwards of five trillion chemical reactions each second at speeds of over 260 miles per hour.” Our brains are so complex that our own brains have problems conceiving our brains! Nevertheless, all of those neural connections are vital to our lives because they make sure we don’t forget to breathe; they help us interpret sensory input; they instruct our muscles to move; they give us the ability to communicate with one another sometimes in several different languages; and they enable us to ponder the meaning of life. You don’t actually need a brain to live — jellyfish get along just fine without brains — but if you aspire to do more with your life than float aimlessly on the ocean currents, you’ll need some sort of brain. And in the animal world, we humans have evolved one of the best. Our brains figured out how to make clothing so that we can live in cold climates as well as warm. They’ve enabled us to travel faster than the fastest animal: before the invention of the steam engine, our travel speed was limited by how fast our horses could go, but because of our brains, we can now build rocket ships that will take us to the moon in three days. Our brains have made it possible for us to replace failing organs or repair damaged hearts and eradicate smallpox, and because of our brains, we can make soft vanilla ice cream served in a crisp waffle cone. Let’s see a jellyfish do that!
Brains do, however, have their drawbacks. A jellyfish floating aimlessly on an ocean current is unlikely to be stewing about what a disappointment it is to its mother because she had hoped it would find a nice place to settle down in Monterey Bay instead of drifting its life away out by the party boats in Laguna Beach. Free from brains, jellyfish are also free from angst and indecision, from second guessing and worry, from guilt and regret. Moreover, our own brains are not always trustworthy. Sure, your brain might lead you toward a better life by encouraging you to spend your evening reading a good book but your brain is just as likely to tempt you toward indolence by saying, “Hey, but first, why don’t you check out Youtube and see if there are any funny llama videos?” In fact, our brains can shoot off so many thoughts at once that it often seems as if we have more than one brain in our heads and those brains aren’t always in agreement with one another. Sometimes your brain is telling you to lose weight and other times your brain is saying, “Eat the ice cream! Just eat the ice cream!” We use the expression, “I’m of two minds about that,” to describe the conflicting voices in our head and for some of us, particularly for the ruminators among us, the expression would be more apt if we said, “I’m of twenty minds about that.” Pixar depicted this perfectly in their movie, “Inside Out” when they showed an entire crew up there in a little girl’s head as Joy argued with Sadness, and Fear cowered before Anger, while Disgust rolled her eyes at everything. While we as Christians are trying to live our lives in the best way possible, the chatter from our own brains constantly muddies the waters: it pulls us in one direction and another, and it’s so noisy up there that if God is trying to help us out by speaking a word of guidance, we’ll never hear God’s voice through the din.
In other words, your brain can be your best friend and it can be your worst enemy.
And so the scripture tells us, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
This morning, the Bluegrass Band sang the song, “Life is a Ballgame,” which is an appropriate song for talking about “setting our minds on the right things” because athletes have to train their minds as much as their bodies if they are going to excel in their sport. When an athlete first starts out in high school, they can depend solely on their physical abilities to give them the winning edge but eventually when they reach the highest levels of their sport, it is often mental discipline, not physical agility, that separates the good from the great. At a certain point, athletes have to understand that their brains may not be trustworthy and so they have to learn how to ignore their brain’s chatter if they are going to be able to perform well. Former baseball player, Ray Knight once said, “Concentration is the ability to think about absolutely nothing when it is absolutely necessary.”
In the baseball movie, “For the Love of the Game,” the main character, Bill Chapel, is a pitcher nearing the end of his career for the Detroit Tigers. Chapel is facing innumerable problems in his life: his girlfriend just left him, his manager told him he might be traded, and his body feels battered and worn out. As he pitches, he mentally reviews the events of his life that have brought him to this moment, and the movie flashes back and forth between his memories of the past and the present game. Toward the end of the game, however, Chapel looks at the scoreboard and suddenly realizes that he is pitching a perfect game. For non-baseball people, a perfect game is when a pitcher gets every single player out so that no one ever reaches first base. It’s only been done 23 times in the history of baseball, and the main reason that a perfect game is so hard to accomplish is that as soon as a pitcher realizes he is close to pitching one, his brain starts to get in the way of his body. His brain goes into hyperdrive, and trying to be helpful, warns him about all of the things that might mess up this perfect game — “Don’t tense up! Don’t pay attention to the cheering crowds! Don’t think about how few people have accomplished this!” but like someone telling you not to think about white elephants, suddenly all you can do is think about white elephants and so most perfect games are blown by the pitcher himself as his chattering brain gets in the way.
In the movie, we see Chapel trying to overcome this mental distraction by saying to himself before each pitch, “Clear the mechanism,” and as he does the sounds of the crowd slowly die away until all you can hear is Chapel breathing. The camera moves from the wide angle of the field to zoom in on the singularity of the catcher’s mitt. Everything except the ball and the catcher ceases to exist for Chapel. In this place of clarity and quiet, his body does what it has been trained to do without interference from his own doubts, disbelief, fears and worries, questions and analysis, regrets, hopes, or thoughts of any kind. He has cleared the mechanism.
I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the screenwriter named the pitcher “Chapel.” People of faith throughout history have used sacred spaces — churches, sanctuaries, Temples, mosques, prayer rooms, and chapels — as places where they can “clear the mechanism;” where they can quiet the chatter of their own brains so that they can hear instead the still small voice of God. When I took the Senior High Youth group to the Islamic Center of Rochester last year, we watched as people came into the prayer room for the evening service. At first, each person hung back as they entered the room and for a few moments, simply stood quietly with head bowed. Then, just before moving forward to join the line of people praying at the front of the room, they would raise their hands and wave them backwards by their heads. When we asked later about this gesture, Imam Ismet told us that this is their symbolic way of pushing all worldly distractions behind them before they enter into prayer and communion with Allah. It is the Muslim equivalent of Billy Chapel’s “clearing the mechanism,” of emptying oneself of everything that might hinder you from experiencing the fullness of God’s presence.
Frankly, modern day Protestants aren’t very good at “clearing the mechanism.” If you google prayer, or for old-school types, consult a guide to prayer in a Protestant church library, you will usually find a description of four types of prayer: Prayers of petition when we ask God for help in our struggles, prayers of intercession when we speak the names of others in need of help, prayers of thanksgiving when we give voice to our gratitude, and prayers of praise when we express our wonder at God’s goodness and holiness. Some sites list more than four types of prayer but they are all variations on ways that we verbally express our needs to God or verbally seek answers to our questions. The one thing that they all have in common is that they are full of words. Even when I invite you to pray silently in worship, the fact that I use “pray” as a verb implies that you should be doing something — that you should be saying something silently in your head during those quiet moments. To pray silently in the Protestant tradition really means to pray privately, but few of us use that time to simply sit in silence doing nothing. In fact, the Protestant tradition tends to be suspicious of any form of faith that doesn’t depend on the word, whether it is God’s Word or our word, and so our worship is full of verbosity; from the time you enter the sanctuary to the Benediction response at the end, you are immersed in a chatter of words to match the chatter in your own brain. Rarely do Protestants use prayer to “clear the mechanism;” to think about absolutely nothing. Instead, we use our words like flags on a runway to guide God in saying, “This is where I need help, God. Over here, Runway 7!” It’s as if we don’t trust God’s ability to enter our presence without our guidance.
The Bible says, however, that prayer is not always done with words. The Psalms frequently refer to a practice of daily meditation and when Colossians tells us to set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, it is telling us to replace the chatter of our brains with the inward dwelling of Christ. Verbal prayer, whether silent or spoken, is important in enabling us to articulate the needs and hopes of our lives as we kneel before God, but the Bible urges us also to learn how to quiet our words so that God can speak, or if God desires, so that God can simply be present with us in quiet communion. Learning to clear the mechanism by quieting our brains is an important skill to learn for our faith.
Now, true confession, I used to be very resistant to anything that smacked of meditation. I had a professor in seminary who tried to teach us meditative prayer by telling us that we should clear our minds by counting our breaths. I remember clearly sitting in my room counting my breaths and anytime I realized my mind had wandered, I would start again from one. Well, I never got beyond four and instead of feeling calmer after these meditative exercises, I would be keyed up and frustrated, and usually give up after about three minutes. Meditation, I decided, was not for me, and I even secretly prided myself on having a brain that was just too active to be stopped in its tracks. A few years ago, however, I began reading more and more articles by Christian writers recommending meditation as a way of encountering God in a more acute and personal way, and so I decided to give it a second chance. As I explored the topic, I discovered an exercise that greatly helped me understand what I had been doing wrong and what it meant to “clear the mechanism” in prayer. If you, like me, have difficulty meditating, you might try this at home to help you understand the concept.
Get a stack of index cards and on each card write a thought or feeling that your brain might generate during a time of meditation. You might write things like, “I’m feeling so tense right now,” “I’ve got so much work to do,” “My daughter is driving me crazy,” “I wonder what’s for dinner,” or “I’m terrible at meditation.” When you are done, give those index cards to a friend or family member and then sit nearby in a chair and begin to breathe slowly in and out counting your breaths. Meanwhile, have the person with the index cards throw the cards at you one by one. As they do, try to swat them away before they hit you but don’t forget to continue to count your breaths. As you can imagine, you will probably find this impossible to do this. Like I found in that first meditation I did back in seminary, you’ll have to keep going back to one because you’ll constantly loose track of your breaths as you watch for the cards coming at you. Now, however, try the exercise a second time, but this time as the person throws the cards at you, don’t try to swat them away. Let them fall wherever they land while you continue to breathe in and out. You will discover that you are better able to maintain your focus on your breath when you stop worrying about stopping the cards.
So it is with meditative prayer: the thoughts and chatter of your brain will continue but you can let that chatter drift by knowing that it is irrelevant to your task at hand. Let your brain go ahead and do its thing while you do your thing which is no-thing and in that quiet space in the midst of the noise of your chattering brain, God can come and sit beside you. There the things of heaven will fill your thirsty spirit. There love will envelope your uneasy heart. There you will no longer be of two minds, or twenty minds, but only of one mind, the mind of heaven. And there, as you sit quietly in the presence of God, you will experience peace.
Clear the mechanism so that in prayer, your spirit can do what it is trained to do, be at one with God.