December 10, 2017 // LET JOY SLIP IN // Sara Wolbrecht // 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (The Kingdom New Testament)
Two weeks until Christmas Eve, my friends! And I wonder: has your brain sounded anything like this example of my brain this week? This video is meant to capture a bit about how all of our brains work. Our mind ping-pongs back and forth from replaying the past to worrying about the future. Something we experience profoundly in Advent, as we remember ALL the Christmases past, and as we’re constantly thinking about all the plans, shopping, eating (and pie!) that is to come. And yet we know it is not just Advent – this season is an intense microcosm of the larger reality of our lives, in that any time of the year, on any day, any moment, we’re almost ALWAYS somewhere else.
But the invitation the Jesus-story offers us – and what we’re pressing into this Advent season – this most wonderful time of the year – is to be people who are present. Here. Now. Who experience our experiences. And if we can do that during Advent? Man, bring on the rest of the year.
In a few minutes, we’ll review some of the practices we’re taking on to be people who are Christmas, Present. But first: all kinds of good things for us to consider today.
For today! We begin by turning to a piece of the bible like we do each week – letting the Jesus-story inform our Advent journey. This is a text that will be read for the third Sunday of Advent in most mainline churches throughout the world, from 1 Thessalonians. 1 Thessalonians is a letter written by the apostle Paul while he was in the city of Corinth, to the Christians in Thessalonica. 1 Thessalonians is considered the single oldest book in the NT, believed to have been written in the year 50, Jesus has not even been gone 20 years. In the letter, Paul has been laying out the central ways in which people learn the life of Jesus. First, encouraging them to listen to the teaching in their community – valuing their leaders and listening and learning from them. Then naming how the care and influence of the whole community is important – as they look out for one another’s needs, and give comfort, strengthening and example wherever necessary. And then we get to this final list of practices, behaviors, mindsets that can help Jesus-followers learn the way of life Jesus offers. And Paul begins with the theme of this third Sunday of Advent: rejoice always! Joy. I’ve chosen a different translation, though, from N.T Wright (so it has different language, but that is the sentiment). As always, engage your brain as you listen – let this be God’s word for you, for us, together. This list of life-practices.
I Thessalonians 5:16-24 (The Kingdom New Testament, N.T. Wright)
Never stop praying;
In everything be thankful
(This is God’s will for you in the Messiah Jesus);
Don’t quench the spirit,
Don’t look down on prophecies,
If something is good, hold it fast;
If something looks evil, keep well away.
Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy. May your complete spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah. The one who calls you is faithful; he will do it.
Let’s focus in on this first phrase, this theme for our third Sunday of Advent, where Paul says:
Always celebrate (The Kingdom New Testament)
Rejoice always (NIV)
Be cheerful no matter what (The Message)
So looking at this. Check in with yourself. On a scale of 1-10 how good are you at always celebrating, rejoicing always, being cheerful no matter what? (Show me?) I love the idea of always celebrating, right? But. Then life happens – and it’s a bit more complicated than that. And my children are cranky, or I’m cranky or we’ll all cranky.
So given how most of us are, most of the time, Paul’s words feel a little, well, Pollyannaish (is that still a reference people get?). Very, sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. Very unrealistic and – more significantly – like it is an invitation to stuff or avoid any emotions other than joy, like we should just smile and say, “I’m fine” all the time. Especially with that translation: “be cheerful no matter what.” Just grin and bear it guys, because that’s what Jesus wants you to do…
So I want to suggest that there is more going on here – as we sometimes like to quote, the Transformers (pic) – like it was for those transforming machines – there is often as we read the bible, more than meets the eye. And there is more than meets the eye, here, too. And this, my friends, is what we will dig into – what’s Paul talking about when he says: always celebrate.
So to get at it, let’s take a circuitous route. I have a second, similar yet different question for you: are you generally, more often, a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” kind of person? Maybe think of some examples to support your hypothesis. Averaging out your perspective… Now give thumbs up or down on which you most readily are?
Well, I want to disrupt our perception about this well-known dichotomy a bit. By geeking out on some research that I have heard about and looked into this week.
First, let me introduce you to – for the first time, or reminding you if you already know, of what is called the negativity bias. Are you familiar with the negativity bias? If not, you may be able to guess what it is. Straight from Wikipedia, the definition of negativity bias is this:
The Negativity Bias, also known as the negativity effect, refers to the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one's psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things. In other words, something very positive will generally have less of an impact on a person's behavior and cognition than something equally emotional but negative. The negativity bias has been investigated within many different domains, including the formation of impressions and general evaluations; attention, learning, and memory; and decision-making and risk considerations. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negativity_bias)
So, my friends, according to research, it turns out we’re all kinda glass-half-empty people, most of the time. I spent a lot of time this week reading research that explores this idea. Another way to say it, is that neuroscientists, psychologists have come to know that: Our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. And we know this, yes? Man, do those negative comments, emails, feedback, mistakes stick with us. We will replay them for months. But those moments of joy, of goodness, of praise – are so fleeting. How deeply we enjoy something – do we let it stick with us?
So even though some people do have a more positive outlook, almost everyone experiences and remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail. Our brains are wired toward the negative, not the positive. We’re naturally drawn to it.
One study I read this week succinctly put it this way: losing money, being abandoned by friends and receiving criticism will have a greater impact than winning money, making friends or receiving praise. (Do you remember how I majored in psychology for my undergrad? I love this stuff).
Another interesting point: we tend to see people who say negative things as smarter than those who are positive people. We see that played out in how positive people are portrayed as naïve on shows and movies. Isn’t that interesting? (Depressing). And related, we are more likely to give greater weight to critical reviews, than positive reviews.
Our brains are Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. Anyone resonating with any of this?
So, like me, you may be asking: why is this? It is likely, that as with many other quirks of the human psyche, there may be an evolutionary basis for this. Those who are more attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased the probability of actually passing along their genes. You’re on the lookout for threats – then you’re going to see the threat and survive. That could be the reason.
But whatever the reason – the bottom line, research-supported reality of our brains is that our brains are wired toward the negative, not the positive. We’re naturally drawn to it.
So to come back to this letter from Paul to the folks in Thessalonica. This was a community facing threats beyond what we can imagine. To picture these Christians they were not like this (pic of Christian album cover). They were twenty years into this movement of the life of Jesus – and it was not safe to be Christian. They were persecuted for their faith. These were folks whose friends were martyred, who experienced violence because of their faith and their desire to follow Jesus.
This is the context, to this community, Paul writes: Always celebrate, never stop praying, in everything be thankful. How much suffering and negativity and loss and uncertainty and fear were these Jesus-followers facing? Always celebrate, never stop praying, in everything be thankful. Was Paul trying to minimize their pain? Was Paul trying to get them to ignore the severity of their situation? No, I don’t think so.
I think they had the same negativity-biased-brains then, too, and man did they have every reason to ruminate on the negative. And so Paul (by the grace of God) had the insight to invite them to choose to give attention, airtime to the good things. Always celebrate, never stop praying, in everything be thankful. Choose joy. Rejoice always. Not to ignore the negative – because the negative will just keep coming, it WILL get airtime, but simply to give the positive more balance. More of a fighting chance to actually affect them.
And we, too, friends get to receive this letter as words for us,1967 years later. Even as we are far from any kind of suffering that these Christians faced, we can still hear Paul’s words in the context of our negativity-biased-brains. We also hear this as a powerful reminder that we can choose to give attention, airtime to the good things. Always celebrate, never stop praying, in everything be thankful. Not to ignore the negative – simply to give the positive more balance. More of a fighting chance to actually affect us.
And here’s the thing: research actually supports this need for intentionality – to choose joy. We must intentionally think about, attend to the positive. Here it is. I’m going to show you two statistics, and if you hear nothing else today, walk away with this and just ruminate on it (and you probably will because it is kind of negative information – so there you go. You’re welcome).
When we hear bad news, it takes 3-4 seconds for it to go into our long-term memory.
(Add this on the slide) When we hear good news, it takes 12-15 seconds before it drops into our long-term memory. If we get distracted before the 12-15 seconds is up, it doesn’t go in at all.
What’s it all mean? The good stuff ONLY makes it in (to our memories, to affecting us) when we’re intentional. If we’re not intentional about focusing on the good things in our lives, we’ll automatically focus on the bad things. And the bad things will be the things that stay in our memory. Dun dun dun!
You got that? Is it filed away in your long-term memory? Good. Because now, my friends, we get into the “so, what do we do about it?” portion of our time. So let’s roll up our sleeves and see by the grace of God what we can do about this.
To name just two things, two ways of living intentionally – the great good news in this is: now we know! And maybe you already knew. Now we know – we can – and we need to (first thing) – 1. intentionally focus on the good things as they happen. 12 seconds. We hear a word of praise, an email that means something to us. Don’t dismiss it. Focus on it. Play it over and over, savor the words, the feeling we feel. With 12 seconds, we let it slip into our long-term memory.
We’re having a moment of connection and flowing conversation, or a snuggly moment with our child or a special someone or side-splitting laughter. Don’t jump to the next thing - stay there. Focus on it, chew on it. 12 seconds. Let it slip in.
We’re enjoying music moving us – at a concert, in our car, at church – sing it, feel it, focus on it – let joy slip in.
We’ve noticed the beauty of the amazing sparkly frost on EVERYTHING that we’ve seen this week. Notice it. Marvel at it (while walking and driving carefully so you don’t slip on the ice – while letting the joy slip in).
We’re doing the dishes after dinner – humming along to good music and the smells and full belly of a great evening – it’s not a “big-deal” moment, but man it is a good one. It’s life. Savor it, let the joy slip in.
Always celebrate – Paul says. Focus on it, savor it. Make celebration of the good things a priority. Paul reminds us that our brains need us to do the work of celebrating, in order to let those good, beautiful, messy moments of our lives last. We change our focus – 12 seconds at a time. That’s the first thing.
Second, we can be people who 2. help others savor the positive. A few weeks ago I had a drink with Megan from the band. And I told her this statistic, about needing 12 seconds for positive things to stick in our brains. And later in our conversation there was something positive spoken, and she was like, go ahead, take it in for 12 seconds. And she sat there and waited while I savored the kind words. We can be like Megan – making space and creating focus for the good, positive moments.
Or when we can tell someone is in that space of feeling something positive – maybe we just gave them positive feedback – and to keep saying it to them in different ways, or ask about it so that THEY stay focused on it. Don’t let them get off the hook. Help them stay there. We can be a community of people who cheer-lead each other and others beyond these wall to pay attention to the good things. That’s the second thing.
Notice with me: these two things – isn’t this what it means to be people of Advent? In a season of darkness, we wait. And we are on the watch for light in the midst of the dark, hope, goodness, in the places where we’re stuck and the world is stuck. To be Advent people who savor JOY even as we feel the push of the surrounding negativity.
And really, these two things, isn’t this what Paul is doing here in his letter? He doesn’t get into the science of it – hey guys, take 12 seconds to get into your long-term memory. But he is that voice, that Advent voice, the voice of presence, that cheerleader saying – focus on the good, not because the hard and rough is not there, but because we will miss it if we don’t.
…Before we wrap up, I do want us to also hold alongside these two practices of savoring joy, the four Advent practices we named for being people of Christmas Present, choosing practices to help us be in the now this season – these are practices that can build our muscles of focus.
So if you missed last two weeks – here they are for the first time, and if you know them, then this is a great time to check in about how the week went, CELEBRATE THE GOOD MOMENTS (let joy rise to the surface), maybe reset some expectations of ourselves, our mindset to see how we might finesse this differently in the week to come.
To Be More Christmas Present: First practice: 1. Power Down. Our phones (unintentionally) often interrupt those 12 seconds of savoring. What might it look like to change or at least pay attention to our phone habits this Advent?
Second practice, we 2. Light Candles. (add to list and keep all four up) Specifically: Advent candles – light them every day, adding another each Sunday, letting the light grow as we hope towards Christmas. This week was harder for us to find time – you?
And with those Advent candles, we’re 3. Savor the Story. Each day, we’re reading 2-3 verses that slowly inch us through the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel. The booklet is online or pick up a copy today if you haven’t and want that reading.
Fourth and finally. Is the: If you only do one – do this. Do number four. And that is to 4. Meditation. Mindfulness meditation is like a workout for our brains that helps us focus – and you better believe that focusing on joy is something the practice of meditation can help us do. I didn’t research the best options, but I have enjoyed using the app Headspace, which is also accessible online at headspace.com. (Because yes, our phones can also be used for good). Again: I can’t make you meditate, but man, I sure do recommend it.
Which of these practices have led you into moments of being present so far? Of joy? Keep playing with these practices – and always there is grace and no grade for your performance.
Now as we close, we come back to our text, this letter from Paul. Focus in with me one last time. Is he saying: Just grin and bear it guys, because that’s what Jesus wants you to do. No. There is more than meets the eye in our text. Jesus actually doesn’t want us to grin and bear it. The Jesus-story, that unfolds as God comes in the flesh to be among us and feel all the things with us as one of us – this is a story that invites us into (as we’ve said before) wholeheartedness. And it is our story. A life of feeling all the things – which is only really possible when we are people who are present, and who savor the good.
Paul, actually, gets into this as he closes the text we read. He says:
Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy. May your complete spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.
Our complete spirit, soul, body, he says – wholeheartedness, integratedness. This is what Paul prays for for Thessalonica, for us. Wholeness. Which includes joy, that slips into our memory and our story when we take time to savor it. And the final thing we’ll name here – is that all of this being present and savoring and being intentional is not just done on our own steam – but thankfully, through the generous Spirit of God at work in us. Paul’s final, final word in our text: (add to slide) The one who calls (us) is faithful; he will do it. Now that’s good news. And my friends: this is my prayer for us, that we’d lean into God’s Spirit to receive the goodness of life in the moment – to let joy slip in.
Now we’ll move into practicing presence, together, knowing that God meets us in our showing up in the moment. Today, we’re going to meditate using the audio from the Headspace App. This is day three of the 10 days they have available for free.
Again, there are so many ways to meditate, and as Jesus followers, the point of it is to become more present to the presence of God. After, we’ll keep holding the space of being present and flow right into a song to listen to what God is saying to us.
There’s a video that Andy will reference, that describes how in meditation it’s like sitting on the side of the road, watching traffic roll by – those cars are our thoughts. Sometimes there’s a lot of congestion, and much of the time, we find ourselves running into the road and chasing one of those thoughts. When that happens, as soon as we notice it, we come back to sitting on the side, watching the cars.
So get comfortable, feet on the floor, back straight but not strained. Eyes forward with soft focus…
Headspace Audio, Day Three. www.headspace.com
Information on negativity bias and our Teflon brains in this sermon came primarily from:
· Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negativity_bias
· Mike Bechtle’s Blog: www.mikebechtle.com/why-negative-is-stronger-than-positive/
· This Robcast interview with Richard Rohr: https://robbell.podbean.com/e/episode-86-richard-rohr-and-the-alternative-orthodoxy/