How To Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

My dear friend, Megan Gunnar, is the director of the Institute for Childhood Development at the University of Minnesota.

I think she’s as surprised to have a Lutheran pastor as a friend as I am stunned and grateful that I have as a friend who is world-renowned brain scientist. (It’s like having an astronaut friend or hanging out with the guy who gets shot out of the cannon at Ringling Bros. Very cool.)

Much of Megan’s research has documented the intuitive sense we all share, which tells us children learn best in safe and secure environments from trusted and loving adults. Safe learning environments opens the brain’s “windows” to learning and allows for brain plasticity. For example, it is far more difficult for an adult to learn a foreign language without retaining an accent than a young child. But, brain plasticity cuts both ways. It turns out fear can open the brain to the type of plastic laying down of fearful/exclusionary patterns that most of us involved in preaching aren’t interested in promoting.

For many years, it was thought that this plasticity, the window for new knowledge, was fixed and once the hard-wiring of the brain was complete, there was no going back. Brains researchers have more recently discovered this is not true and the neurons and chemistry can be altered. Adolescence is one of these key times. However, even as adults, there may mechanisms through which we can we can learn, even if those neural pathways seem fixed. In other words, you can teach an old dog new tricks. See Takao Review: Critical Periods.

Which leads us down a different pathway as preachers. This February we move from the season of Epiphany to Transfiguration Sunday, right into the season of Lent. And, we as preachers are aware that we’re dealing in these seasons with something sublime and beautiful and a little dangerous: revelation.

The odd thing is that we know throughout scripture epiphanies often come to people when they are most afraid. Imagine Abraham’s and Sarah’s call, Moses at the burning bush, Jeremiah, Mary in Luke’s gospel, the soldier at Jesus’ cross in Mark’s gospel, or Jesus showing up in the garden or upper room in John’s gospel. Paul, too, had his own fearful experience on the road to Damascus.

Revelation or epiphanies are not limited to the stories of the bible either. Talk to hospice nurses or the ladies in your bible study or go outside our culture. In almost every religion, revelatory experiences happen in the midst of the wilderness, where we are most vulnerable, where we, as humans, have most to fear. The angels or the Holy Spirit do not caution revelation recipients to “Have no fear” unless there is some need of courage.

I have to ask Megan about this but it will sound nutty. Revelations, epiphanies, asking questions about what happens to the brain when one encounters the living God in our vulnerability, our fear. Sure, we can make our churches safe places for our children to learn about God. Dealing with insurance companies and adult volunteers drives that need for our churches to be safe and secure places. But, teaching children about God is far more than a set of doctrines or ideas, and brain scientists would be the first to admit that. And yet …

And yet, it is not dependent upon us. Nothing is.

One of the things that makes us step into that pulpit week after week after week, why we still teach confirmation or lead adult bible studies is that we believe — even when we cannot — that the Holy Spirit is driving us to point to Christ. We believe that it is not our words, but Christ’s spirit, The Word, that has been graciously embedded into our meager words that gives them any meaning at all.

It is not we (really, we’re not that fascinating on our own) who are life-changing; it is Christ working in us, and in our people simultaneously, perhaps allowing them to hear, to learn, to “know” for the first time they are loved beyond time, but also liked — really liked — by Christ, beyond time or human measure. It is the Christ’s promises that are buried and gives new life in the hunk of bread and bit of wine, and it is the Holy Spirit, not our own good manners that create Christian community, that enliven us towards vivacity, and bear God’s mercy and tenderness for the other.

Nothing is dependent upon us, and that may be one of the greatest learnings of all. God’s self-giving to the world is not dependent upon the fervency of our prayer, our emotional state. We cannot maneuver or manipulate ourselves into an epiphany. But, one of the greatest learnings of all may be that we don’t need to. God, who gave us minds to teach, to learn, to know, to experience, will break into our lives, pure epiphany and naked revelation, when we most need it. When we are afraid, insecure, when we are vulnerable, when we feel nothing, when the Holy Spirit is churning, bringing us to new life. It is the Gospel, pliable and elastic, turning despair into hope, anxiety into peace, death into a resurrection promise.

Of course, resurrection is not without its wounds. But that is the very beauty of it.