Psalm 73:21-28 – God Is Near

When my thoughts were bitter
    and my feelings were hurt,
I was as stupid as an animal;
    I did not understand you.
Yet I always stay close to you,
    and you hold me by the hand.
You guide me with your instruction
    and at the end you will receive me with honor.
What else do I have in heaven but you?
    Since I have you, what else could I want on earth?
My mind and my body may grow weak,
    but God is my strength;
    he is all I ever need.

Those who abandon you will certainly perish;
    you will destroy those who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, how wonderful to be near God,
    to find protection with the Sovereign Lord
    and to proclaim all that he has done! (Good News Translation)

Sometimes we put our foot in our mouth. We know how it feels saying rash words that we later regret. And we also know what it feels like to get dumped on by another who has some choice words for us.

The psalmist, Asaph, records an encounter with God. Asaph was upset. He gave God a piece of his mind. Then later, after reflecting on the experience, Asaph admitted that his soul was embittered and let his base nature take over.

The human brain is a complicated organ. We process information in different parts of the brain. The neo-cortex (the rational part of the brain) allows us to engage in logical analysis and complex decision making. 

Another part, the limbic system (sometimes referred to as the “reptilian brain”) processes information very quickly, largely by instinct. When we become scared, surprised, upset, or angry, adrenaline gets pumped into our limbic system so that we can quickly react to the perceived threat, danger, or injustice.

Having our brains flooded with adrenaline when there is real danger is necessary. There are life-threatening circumstances in which we need that quick response. Yet, if our brains remain on high alert and are continually fearful and upset, even when there is no real problem, we don’t calm down, and the result is less than stellar behavior. 

So, what is the answer to this situation? Asaph said God holds his right hand and guides him with wise counsel. Being near to God brings the brain chemistry to appropriate levels so that we can relax and trust.

God is with us always in the person of the Holy Spirit. There is never a time, place, or situation where God is absent. As we learn to rely on God’s presence, and remind ourselves of it on a daily basis, we can restore more rational thoughts to our lives. We can live knowing God is in control and continually vigilant to watch over us.

Gracious God, I have no one in my life like you. My flesh and my heart may fail, my brain might become overwhelmed with irrational fears, but you are my strength and the Rock of my salvation. Thank you for your continual provision and help each day through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 – Gratitude Changes Us

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever….”

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
    O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
    We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
    and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
    up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
    you are my God, I will extol you.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever. (NRSV)

Show me a spiritual sourpuss, and I’ll show you a person who lives without daily gratitude toward God and others. But show me a gracious person who liberally gives thanks, and I will show you a person profoundly in touch with God’s steadfast love.

The psalmist chose to give thanks for God’s goodness and faithful love. I wonder how much different each day would be if we began it with the psalmist’s great call to worship: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” 

There is a misguided notion that only certain people have the attitude of gratitude – that some folks are just naturally ornery, and some are just born happy. But the truth is that gratitude and giving thanks is a practice which needs to be carefully cultivated. As it grows and develops, gratitude bears the fruit of joy. 

Thankfulness is a daily decision of faith to have the kind of attitude which pleases God and blesses others.

We now know so much more about the human brain. Research has discovered that the brain is made up of an estimated 100 billion neurons making a total of 100 trillion neural connections. That’s a lot of neural power! Most of those neural pathways are good and healthy. For example, I didn’t have to think about how to tie my shoes this morning because I have a well-developed neural pathway that automatically makes the connection to do it.

However, some of those neural pathways are not good, even unhealthy. There might be connections in our heads which lead to substance abuse when under stress, or to violently lash out when afraid or hurt, or things like plain old procrastination. If you have ever had the experience of telling yourself that you’re not going to respond a particular way, then end up doing it anyway, it is likely you have a well-worn neural pathway which connects certain events to a set of focused actions.

What this all means is that willpower won’t do the trick in changing behavior. That’s because our brains don’t work that way. The good news is that all those neural connections and pathways, like ruts in a gravel road, can fade away and new ones can be developed. Scientists call this “neural plasticity.”

There are practices which can help unhealthy neural connections go away and create new healthy pathways.

One of those practices is gratitude. Giving thanks changes our brain chemistry! Yet, it doesn’t happen overnight. But if we identify three persons or possessions which we are grateful for and say them out loud at least three times a day over the next three months, then we have developed a new neural pathway in our brain.

So, in the future, when we face a stressful event – whereas in the past we might deal with it in an unhealthy way – now our brains reflexively go to a different place and see the situation in a different way than before. And we choose different actions and behaviors.

Readers of this blog know that I continually encourage reading the psalms out loud as prayers to God. If we make this a practice, it will not only change our brains – it will create new spiritual pathways in our souls which fortify us for those times in life when things are tough and hard.

Spiritual practices have a purpose. And when we use those disciplines, we end up developing connections with the Lord which support us and sustain us for a lifetime – not to mention that we become a delight for others to be around instead of being a tedious fart.

Loving God, this is the day you have made; I rejoice in it and am glad that your steadfast love covers all things. Help me to connect every good thing with your gracious hand upon me so that I will not look and act like I was baptized in pickle juice.  To the glory of Jesus Christ, I pray.  Amen.

Psalm 73:21-28

            We have all had the experience of saying rash words that we later regret; and, of being dumped on by another who had some choice words for us.  In Psalm 73, the psalmist, Asaph, records an encounter with God in which he had some rather upset musings for the Sovereign of the universe.  Later, after some reflection, Asaph said:  “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.”
 
            As human beings, we process information in different parts of our brains.  The neo-cortex, the rational part allows us to engage in logical analysis and complex decision making.  Another part, the limbic system, is sometimes known as the “reptilian brain” because it processes information very quickly, largely by instinct.  When we become scared, surprised, upset, or angry, adrenaline gets pumped into our limbic system so that we can react to the perceived threat, danger, or injustice.
 
             Having our brains flooded with adrenaline when there is real danger is a necessary thing.  But when we are continually fearful and upset, even when there is no real problem, our brains never calm down and the result is less than stellar behavior.  So, what is the answer to this situation?  Asaph said that God holds his right hand and guides him with wise counsel.  Being near to God is what brings the levels down so that we can relax and trust.
 
            God is with us always in the person of the Holy Spirit.  There is never a time, place, or situation where God is absent.  As we learn to rely on God’s presence, and remind ourselves of it on a daily basis, we can restore more rational thoughts to our lives so that we can live knowing God is in control.
            Gracious God, I have no one in my life like you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, my brain might become overwhelmed with irrational fears, but you are my strength and the Rock of my salvation.  Thank you for your continual provision and help each and every day through Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.