“A Neuroplasticity Event—a.k.a. A Spiritual Awakening”

May 19, 2019
Jonathan Rumburg
Acts 9:1-19

Introduction

The older I get the more in awe I become of God—especially the more I read and learn about scientific discoveries.

If you didn’t know this about me, I am not one who thinks religion and science are enemies.  Quite the contrary.  Religion and science go together, and together they give us a deeper perspective of how incredibly awesome God is.

For instance… It was once believed that the brain became fixed after childhood, but we now know such is not the case.  The brain actually remains “plastic,” as scientists call it, capable of changing in function and structure as it responds to experience.

Stark evidence of this is seen in those who have been able to claw back after suffering a stroke or other brain-damaging event—my own mother among them.

Twenty one years ago my mom suffered a stroke so severe doctors told us she may not survive.  Decades later she is playing games with her grandkids on Mother’s Day.

The term applied to this is neuroplasticity, and refers to the brain’s ability to change at any age—and thus has negated the old adage, “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.”

These brain changes, however, can be for better or worse, because a malleable brain is also a vulnerable one, which explains why war vets can come home from the battlefield quite different from who they were when they left.  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a neuroplastic disorder caused by the trauma of war which has overwhelmed the brain and rewired it.

The hope of neuroplasticity research is that the brain can continue to change.  One goal of PTSD therapy is to help good memories layer over and alleviate the bad ones.

All of this, and more, shows the awesomeness of how God has fearfully and wonderful created us.

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          So where am I going with all this?

Well, based upon this understanding, it could be argued that what Paul experienced in his blinding-light encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road was nothing less than a neuroplastic event that rewired his brain.

Think about it: Before the encounter, Saul was a vicious persecutor of those who followed Jesus.  He himself explains saying, “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.  I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” (Galatians 1:13-14).

He was a witness to, and condoned, the death of Stephen, the first martyr of the church.

Then he had a brain-, life- and heart-altering event.  He met Jesus on the Damascus road, and everything— everything— changed.  Saul, has a complete reversal in philosophy, career path, purpose of life, values— everything.  Total inside-out, upside-down reorientation of perspective.

A neurologist would call it a neuroplastic event.  People of faith call it a spiritual awakening.  Both are accurate because that’s what conversion is about: a rewiring of everything, an awakening to the Christ-Spirit within, and now science has demonstrated just how it works.

Move 1

What we can take from this is that if Paul’s brain— and by all accounts it was a highly capable one — was able to be retrained and remapped, then radical transformation is possible for us as well.

Meaning…Even in the church we don’t get too old to be taught a new trick.

Don’t we need to hear that?  Isn’t that liberating to hear?  Perhaps we feel doomed to repeat bad decisions—but now we know we can do better.

We know we can find a way to forgive.  We can rid ourselves of destructive behavior.  We can overcome the fears holding us back.  On and on—we know we can change and do better.

So the question we might be desperate to ask is: How can I have a neuroplasticity event, a.ka. a spiritual awakening, that will cause a dramatic change in me and help me do what is right and not wrong?  How can we get some of  that “zap therapy” Paul got?  It seems pretty quick and easy.

Unfortunately it’s not that easy.  The “zap therapy” the Apostle Paul experienced on the Damascus road is unlikely to be something we’re going to encounter.  But there’s another way.

When God calls us to change, the type of therapy we must undertake is called Obedience Therapy.  Devotion to Christ, and his way.

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          Writer Ann Spangler comments, “I have to admit obedience has never been my favorite word. It’s sometimes tedious and often difficult.  Yet the more I obey, the stronger and more spiritually mature I become, because obedience creates pathways in my soul for God to work.”

Obedience creates pathways in our soul, and science has shown that obedience creates pathways in our brain as well.  By intentionally training our thoughts and actions to cooperate with God’s purpose (even though this may not come naturally), we can develop our thoughts and actions into good, positive, and faithful habits of devotion.  But we need to obey.  Not an easy thing, no.  But it becomes easier the more we do it.

Now unlike Saul of Tarsus, we’re not persecuting anyone.  We’ve already experienced some sort of neuroplasticity that has led us to adopt values and a lifestyle quite unlike those of the world around us.

What we want, and need, is to be faithful to this new reality.

Move 2

Paul was blind for three days.  But I can’t help but wonder, based upon what he does after, if he wasn’t actually seeing what he was supposed to become.

If this is true, it might help to visualize what a Christian should look like.

Commenting on this, author Sudi Kate Gliebe of Southwestern Baptist Seminary suggests that the visualizing of achieving goals can help rewire the brain to grow spiritually.

She write, “Visualization competency is crucial. Certainly, the Apostle Paul gained such a vision, showing such when writing, ‘So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5).

          We can ask God for help to see and visualize the person we should be, and then keep that vision in mind, because it’s difficult to be a faithful Christian if we do not know what a faithful Christian looks like.

          And where do we get our image of a mature, faithful Christian?  We get it from Scripture and from what we see modeled in followers of Christ—like Peter, Mary Magdalene, even Thomas, and most especially, Paul.  This creates a companionable image in our brain of the Christian to which we aspire.”

I really appreciate Gliebe’s premise—to look at those who are faithful to God and Christ Jesus throughout scripture.  I appreciate this because when we look at them we see not perfect people, but flawed people.  They all had their issues, their doubts, their struggles, their sins—even their moments of faithlessness.  But still, God and Christ Jesus used them and worked in them and through them to bring forth faithfulness—new life, deeper relationships, justice, compassion, hope, peace, joy, love, and encounters with the divine.

This reinforces another age old adage—God doesn’t call the equipped—God equips the called. And we are all called by God.

Move 3

Now I am not trying to kid anyone here.  The path to spiritual maturity is not easy.  The path of the creation of strong character is difficult.  I’m preaching to myself just as much as anyone else.

We might think it was easy for the Apostle Paul—just get zapped—but to think this would be naïve, because sure, we know Paul was blind for three days and then was healed.

But what we don’t realize is then there’s a gap in his story in which not much is heard from him for twelve years, until just before he begins what would be known as his “first missionary journey.”

In other words, between Acts 9:19 and Acts 13:3, twelve years elapse.

Paul’s conversion—the full weight of it—took some time.  This is critical to know and remember because too often we want God to just zap us with a blinding light and make everything right.  But this process takes time.  And we have to be obedient within the process for it to fully work.

Of course we aren’t a culture that likes to wait.  So we have to ask ourselves:  What do we want more— To remain as we are, even though we want to see ourselves as someone else?  Or are we willing to do what’s needed to become who God calls us to become?

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          I once read one of those motivational messages on Facebook or Twitter that read, “A year from now you’ll wish you had started today.”

Usually these little quips don’t stick with me, but this one did because we often think or dream about doing better, but we put off starting.  And then a year goes by and we wish we had begun sooner.

Our deeper obedience to God and Christ Jesus can begin today.  Right now ever.

Conclusion

Science has shown us what is, does not have to always be.

Jesus shows us the same truth.

And what these truths ultimately give is hope.  Hope for better days.

Our brains are capable of a neuroplasticity event, but this does not mean that learning to walk or talk again after a stroke is easy.  It doesn’t mean working through PTSD is a walk in the park.  It’s hard, it takes time, and we have to keep trying even when we want to give up.

It takes hard work to rewire the brain, and it takes hard work to awaken ourselves to the Christ spirit within.  As a result of this neuroplasticity event, a.ka.: a spiritual awakening, Paul became not only a follower of Jesus, but also a leading proponent and missionary of the Gospel of Christ.

The work of a neuroplasticity event, a.ka. a spiritual awakening will always be worth the time and energy and effort because hope for better days will lead us to better days.

A spiritual awakening won’t lead to perfection—God’s chosen ones show us such over and over.

But spiritual awakening will always lead to obedience and5 faithfulness.  And that’s all God ever asks of us.  Amen.

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